Here’s the good news: You now have a sharper camera in your pocket than professional photographers could dream of 30 years ago. Here’s the bad news: You can only shoot from your apartment.
With museums and galleries largely shuttered around the world because of the coronavirus pandemic, Instagram has filled up these last weeks with “quarantine content”: snapshots of cramped apartments, pets surprised by their owners’ sudden ubiquity, uncannily deserted street scenes and cautious supermarket shoppers in beekeeping suits. But sprinkled among Instagram’s more than 1 billion users, you’ll also find some of the world’s greatest fine art photographers — some shooting on iPhones or Android handsets, some relying on digital cameras and uploading manually. Against the mandatory confinement imposed from Argentina to Zimbabwe, these photographers have taken to the platform with newfound vigor, plunging their imagery into the swim of the social feed.
“I returned to Shanghai from Berlin, and was quarantined at home,” said Liu Shuwei (@shuwei_liu), an audacious young Chinese photographer best known for his portraits and nudes, who turned to Instagram during his weekslong confinement in February. Day after day, he shot the historical architecture and blossoming trees outside the window of his apartment in Shanghai’s former French Concession neighborhood — a relief, Mr. Liu said, from being “angry and disappointed most of the time.”
On Instagram (as well as Weibo and other local platforms), Chinese photographers offered the first view of what is now a global condition. The brilliant video artist Cao Fei, who lives between Beijing and Singapore, has intermixed shots of hand sanitizer and social-distancing propaganda with pristine photographs of her children, a balm amid corona claustrophobia.
In Tehran, the young photographer Tahmineh Monzavi (@tahminehmonzavi) has been shooting the inauspicious beginning of spring from her window, sheltering in place as Iran endures one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 anywhere. “I took this photo on Nowruz, the first day of our new year,” Ms. Monzavi said of one recent Instagram post. “The mood was not like the past years. Tehran was a dead city.” But Instagram has offered a respite from the solitude; she has also posted touching long-distance portraits of her parents, waving from the safety of their own apartment windows.
In Florence, the photographer Michele Borzoni (@micheleborzoni) goes outside “only at certain times of the day,” to shoot his fellow Italians queuing for the supermarket, detached and solitary, like statues in barren squares. Last month, in Florence’s central Piazza della Repubblica, Mr. Borzoni came across a makeshift shrine, decorated with flowers and rosary beads, to the Wuhan doctor Li Wenliang.
The global outpouring of digital imagery includes the renowned Japanese photographer Rinko Kawauchi (@rinkokawauchi), who posted interior views filled with an almost rapturous light, in defiance of confinement. In South Africa, now on lockdown, the sharp young photographer Lindokhule Sobekwa (@lindokuhle.sobekwa) has turned to the sky: a dark cloud, a bleak portent, redeemed by a flock of migrating birds.
Here in the United States, five art photographers — some vigorous users of Instagram, others recent adopters — directly address the effects of the crisis on their lives, often in spectral images. We asked them to describe the role of the social photograph in their work, and the tension between the isolation of quarantine and the global reach of Instagram. These conversations have been edited and condensed.
I’ve always been one of the worst Instagrammers of all the photographers out there. I’m a formal photographer and it’s always been hard to figure out how to actually use that platform in an interesting way. It’s very rare that I post, but now I’m posting because I feel like that’s the way that I can be connected to a larger community.
I want to ride my bike around and just take photographs of L.A., which I imagine I’ll probably do on my phone and post. I started walking every day in the neighborhood because I’m a swimmer but the pools got closed down. So now I’m walking and finding all these weird little sculptural moments, like abandoned dishwashers or lamps with palm fronds falling on them.
In this isolation I’m also opening up Instagram more to actually look at photographs. I suppose it’s because I’m away from my studio and library, where I sit with a lot of books around me. Instagram is my new book because my house doesn’t hold my library.
The hilarious thing is that I spent the ’90s making “American Cities” [her series], where I would have to get up early Sunday mornings to find a landscape emptied out. All those years that I wanted to take images of empty cities, empty freeways — and now I have the perfect opportunity to actually do that, but I have no desire to, because it means something different now.
As the situation in my life changes, some of the work I do changes. I see two threads running through my Instagram feed. One is just, I go out and take pictures. The other is a more diaristic approach.
Some of the pictures I posted recently, the one of the glove and the one of the hand sanitizer, are absolutely direct references to the current situation with coronavirus. But then, using the hashtag #ArtInTheTimeOfCovid, I posted pictures that I could easily have taken a year ago. One I might have taken 45 years ago.
It was a picture of a street in Hudson, N.Y. The street is empty. It was structured very much like a picture I took in Texas in the ’70s. I took pictures of lots of empty streets then but no one interpreted it as people self-quarantining. Now I take the same picture and the context changes the meaning.
I had an experience I learned a lot from in the ’60s, on my first extended stay in Europe. All I knew about what was happening in America was what I would read in The Herald Tribune. It seemed like the country was falling apart. And that’s because newspapers don’t report that the Hudson River was flowing today and the laws of gravity were still in place. But pictures remind us that life does go on, and that there are spring snow storms, for better or for worse.
All of a sudden my work became topical when people started to deal with the effects of isolation and having to stay home. I’ve always thought that my pictures are very much open for interpretation and I’ve always tried to instill a little bit of ambiguity in what I do. I was super surprised when I made a post the first day that the lockdown happened in California, and people really took to it. It’s kind of a perfect example of the flexibility of the meaning of images.
There was a picture I did the other day of this incredibly rocky Icelandic landscape with this crazy cloud, and I wrote, “Let’s help flatten the curve.” It’s curious to apply these terms that are racing out over the news all day long to art and then think about them and look at my archive and be like, “OK, this fits that” or “this is funny.” I’ve never made anything that’s funny. Nobody would ever in the world say that my work had humor to it before. But you add the caption “quarantine and chill” and it gets kind of funny.
When all this happened, my first instinct was to put up pictures that expressed how upset and confused I was. I once taught a class called “Photosensitivity” that was about how to connect your inner world to the outer world via photography, and connect with your emotional life through photography. To be honest, I hadn’t really done that very much intentionally myself.
Suddenly I was combing through pictures that I already made and looked for the ones that were sad and about death and about confusion. And then I started going out, not going far, because I can’t go far anymore, just looking for pictures that really expressed doubts.
I had an amazing revelation the other day. I was walking and I saw some friends. I thought “I should photograph them.” I had my camera, but I couldn’t get too close. Immediately I thought of Harry Callahan’s pictures of his wife, Eleanor. There’s a whole group of them where they’re from really far away. I’ve always loved those pictures because they talk about how far you can stretch your emotional connection to a subject and still have it show up in the camera. In the next few weeks I’m going to make pictures of people I love and care about in this community, from really far away.
This whole thing is kind of a giant set of controlled experiments about families, about households. I think photography is in the same boat.
We’re so in limbo right now I want to lighten up a little bit. I take the self-portraits I make for Instagram very seriously but I think that they’ve gotten sillier. With everything going on, I’m more conscious of my posts being optimistic. I’ve always thought that art should be optimistic on some level.
I just started making these circular pictures a couple of days ago. Suspended in space is how I feel and the circle takes me there, with its telescope-like view and the lack of a hard edge. For me, this is definitely a new way of looking, and like learning a new language. You don’t give up the other. It just makes your visual life richer and more complex. The intensity of this time and this format have made me work as if it is critical to my existence.
I hope we can use the power of social media to bring us together somehow as a nation. The visual can have an immediate impact, whether it’s a picture of a war zone or people walking the streets in masks or scenes with no people in the streets. I look at what other people post, artists and non-artists, and I feel kind of reassured that people are out there thinking about what we might be able to do. I’m not judging people for the quality of the pictures. I’m just looking at the photographs, and what they describe.
By Peter Libbey and Jason Farago