Ours is a profession of personal contact. Whether photographers are doing weddings, or visually telling the stories of everyday life for a newspaper, our work mainly involves direct interaction with other people — the closer the better.
Since the pandemic, stay-at-home photographers have turned their cameras on themselves, documenting their own quarantine. At The Inquirer we’ve done lots of “outside” photos of essential workers and regular people, and other professional photographers are doing porchtraits - from the front seat of their cars (“move a little to your left”).
But imagine you’re a young photographer ready to graduate college, and your senior thesis is documenting the most important people in your own life. That’s the project Hannah Beier, a 23-year-old photography/design merchandising major at Drexel University was pursuing when the coronavirus crisis hit.
Beier has been taking pictures for as long as she can remember, using her father’s Nikon FE 35mm film camera. When she was 12 her parents got her a digital point-and-shoot Canon Powershot of her own, and she “took pictures of everything.” Photography became her outlet, “my way to express myself and my way to connect with the world around me. And taking photos of my friends allowed me to feel that connection.”
She began the semester shooting in black and white with a 4x5 camera (yes! They still teach large format photography and darkroom skills in college!) exploring the “vulnerability of relationships and friendships” among her classmates.
But then suddenly, the campus closed, courses moved online, and her friends scattered all across the country.
“I was devastated,” she said. “I felt so lost and so hopeless. How could I make pictures of my friends without being with my friends?”
The crisis made her want even more to continue with her project. “Their lives needed to be documented at this time. If I wasn’t going to do it nobody was.”
But how, without being physically present? Beier saw other virtual photo shoots, but couldn’t see how screen grabs would work for her. “My computer quality was not the best, and I just knew I wouldn’t be able to get a good photograph.” For her pre-coronavirus work she used a Shen Hao 4x5 film camera and a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV digital SLR — both belonging to Drexel. “I know what a good photograph looks like ,and I knew we were never going to get a good photograph like this.”
Beier had been doing self-portraiture and directing fashion-photo shoots all through college. In fact, she often thought her career path would take her to editing or art direction. That would be her “dream job,” doing her own freelance photography on the side.
Then it suddenly occurred to her. A way to engage with her classmates while photographing them. “My friends all have cameras. I do self-portraiture. I love art-directing. I can teach them to do it. And that’s how this started.”
She FaceTimed her friends and in a collaborative process decided how each would be photographed. It often took a few hours of first coming up with ideas, virtually touring their homes, and going over their camera techniques. Beire would have them position their cameras — “looking at them through their own viewfinder”- so she could “be there” from miles away on her laptop.
She would also help set their smart phones or camera to a 4x5 aspect ratio, in keeping with the spirit of her original project. The arranging and reposing of her subjects while directing them through her laptop was very similar to the deliberative process of composing an image on the ground glass of the large format camera she started her project with. And as with the 4x5, they did not take a lot of pictures. “I don’t think we ever made more than twenty exposures.”
In fact, even when working with her digital camera Beier is a conservative, contemplative photographer. Stuart Rome, one of her photo professors, would tell the class to shoot their assignments as if “we only had one or two rolls of 35mm film.” That’s 36 or 72 exposures on a digital memory card that could literally hold thousands of images.
About two weeks ago Time magazine, planning a cover story on the class of 2020 and “how this global moment will forever shape their lives,” reached out to college photo programs across the country, looking for a student “who has been documenting these extraordinary times.” Beier’s professor, Andrea Modica, sent in a link and almost immediately, Katherine Pomerantz, Time’s director of photography contacted the young photographer.
“I have never been in a publication before,” Beier said. “I have never put my work out there. For me my photography is not something I needed to share with the world. I am just honestly glad that I was able to capture this. Not for me. If I can change the world and help it to heal and help to show what this time in people’s lives has been, to me that is the most important part.”
Since 1998, a black-and-white photo has appeared every Monday in staff photographer Tom Gralish’s photo column in The Inquirer’s local news section. Here are the most recent, in color: