In the middle of March, in Philadelphia and across the nation, really, time seemed to slow and stop. Disease was spreading. People withdrew into their hunkered, private worlds.
It was no different for artist and photographer RA Friedman, 61, who lives in the Point Breeze neighborhood. He left his job as a curator in the University of Pennsylvania libraries on March 9.
He has not returned.
An artist sequestered in home and studio might seem like a rabbit tossed in a raspberry patch. But it quickly began to wear on Friedman. He began to think isolation is not the stuff that dreams are made of — particularly when that quiet studio time is an island in a sea of disease and death.
And then came the idea. As more and more people died, it occurred to him that Philadelphia was losing itself. But what if he could draw portraits of the fallen, and in so doing, create a portrait of the living city through what it has lost?
Still very much in it’s early stages, Friedman has completed nine portraits for what he calls The Trouble I’ve Seen (COVID 19 Portraits). It is a project born of a desire to give something back to the community, he says.
“I think the real reason I started, part was for myself. I really wasn’t feeling it,” Friedman said. “I felt there was all this mayhem, tragedy, and grief going on, and I’m like a portrait of privilege. You know, for me the biggest inconvenience is can I get an Amazon delivery tomorrow?”
Once the idea grabbed hold of him, its magnitude came crashing in. There were more than 1,200 COVID-related deaths in Philadelphia when he began, and 1,550 at the beginning of July. For one artist working alone in Point Breeze, it seemed ambitious and probably impossible. So Friedman has scaled back his idea. Maybe 100 portraits.
That’s doable. But the epic scale of a vast portrait of the city kept nagging. One hundred portraits would be fine; but what about 1,500? Wouldn’t that give back more of what has been taken away?
That’s when it occurred to him that other artists could contribute to the project. Other artists might take on a small piece of the whole and collectively, in a time of isolation, they could regeneratethe variegated face of Philadelphia, a place of loss and a place of memory.
“I really, really, really love the idea of having many artists on the project, and community people,” said Friedman.
But even if other artists join in, there is a major problem. Friedman is working from photographs, and they are difficult to obtain. At this point he creates portraits from images he can find attached to obits on websites, and he has posted queries on internet billboards asking for images of those lost to the virus.
Many internet images are difficult to work with because they have such low resolution.
Faced with poor quality images, Friedman turns to various drawing techniques to “essentially build a figure from the inside out,” he said. All in an effort “to try and create something that doesn’t feel like it’s just kind of flat copy from a photo of the person sitting in front of me. And I really do start to feel that it’s weird. You know, I really need to start to feel like I know these people in a way.”
“Some people have sent [photos] to me — I sent out a general call, more than anything else, to try and get more images, because they’re hard to come by,” he continued. “A certain number of them do end up on the web. And I feel kind of ghoulish because I read the obituaries, Oh my God, looking for photographs. I’m hoping also that people will send them to me.”
“The project is really not about my artwork per se, even though that’s the hook. And it’s certainly the hook ... to get me up in the studio and working because I love to draw. But the real thing is that it’s for the community.”
Friedman, whose work explores various aspects of photography and drawing, is a graduate of Harpur College in Binghamton, N.Y. He has an MFA from Louisiana State University and teaches in the continuing education department of the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and at Pratt Institute in New York.
The portraits he’s completed and assembled so far have a fullness and complexity to them. They hint at humor, resolve, and depth. Ordinary people, struck down. Friedman says he is not publicly identifying the images, for now, out of privacy considerations for family members. Plus, he thinks attaching names to faces is not an important consideration at this point.
He hopes that “the enormity of what’s happened and of the response” — from health-care workers to individuals trying to do the right thing for their neighbors — will “culminate in a public project” involving the portraits. Whether that will be in a public display — a wall of images, for instance, or an exhibition of lost neighbors and family members — or something else remains to be seen.
First he needs photos. And he’d welcome other artists to the project. Anyone can contact him through his website, www.rafriedman.com.
“When I started this project, approximately 1,270 people had perished in Philadelphia county from the coronavirus,” he writes on the website. “I didn’t know these people, but spending time with them, in silence, at my easel, with the light traces captured by the camera, I often feel I am not so much looking at them, but into them, thinking about who they were, what their lives were like; how America failed them. They look back at me and ask: ‘Why?' Their faces, their spirits, are burned into my memory.”