By MICHAEL PERKINS
THE WORLD’S ACCUMULATED ARCHIVE OF PHOTOGRAPHY is largely an inventory of the vanished. Some of these subjects have an abstract quality that allows them to survive specific eras, but many photos are, in fact, testimony to things that are, simply, no more. Some of these records are accidental, since we mostly turn our lenses on things and people that are active factors in our daily lives, giving little thought to how antique they will appear in just a few years’ time. Sometimes, we mark the departure of things on purpose, shooting the occasional deserted factory or abandoned church. We chronicle the end of our worlds wherever we detect it. We snap when things have stopped.
But there is another kind of stopping which defines much of our life at the close of 2020; the temporary kind, the suspension of normal rhythms, symbolized by empty schoolyards, locked buildings, places that will be, as the signs promise, re-opening soon. Our “closed for the duration” cities echo old newsreels from the Great Depression, which show boarded-up mills, vacant stores, and idled farms as symbols of failure, despair. Photographically speaking, there is something poignant about looking into spaces that were designed to hum and teem with life that are, for the moment, forced into silence. Teachers in recent interviews have pined for the noise and confusion of the classroom, while city dwellers who thought they’d never live long enough to “have a little peace around here” now walk deserted streets with unease. You, like myself, have probably had occasion to document the desolate places in your own neighborhoods, places not closed forever, but closed until whenever, which, in some ways is lonelier. In the above image, what could be more upside down than a greenhouse, a building literally created to nurture life, being placed in lockdown?
Life, like water, seeks its own level, and as the world collectively holds its breath, we find ourselves anticipating the next great sigh, that easing off of breath that means that window shades can be raised, lights can switch back on, and doors can swing open. We know that life after wartime is inevitable. Until then, we document the emptiness, because, in time, those pictures, too will impart their lessons.