Pandemic Portraits

Ken Gonzales-Day, Pandemic Portraits, 2020- 2022

The United States surpassed one million Covid-19 deaths on May 17, 2022. Globally the number is over 6.9 million deaths. It is a staggering loss of life, but death is not the only way to measure the impact of the Covid-19. The pandemic has changed our lives in ways that we still don’t fully understand. As an artist and educator, I know many of my colleagues moved their working lives to Zoom or other online communication platforms. Some teachers retired, artists had online exhibitions, live performances were cancelled, museums and schools were pushed to the brink. In March 2020, faculty and students at Scripps College (where I teach) left for spring break and learned we would not be coming back in person.  The following year we taught in Zoom and returned to in-person teaching with masks on in 2021. 

It was a challenge to make work at certain points in the pandemic and like many I had learned how to navigate my working life in Zoom.

Students were allowed to turn off their computer cameras during online classes and some days I found myself talking to a computer screen filled with a grid of black faceless rectangles.  

By the end of the that first summer, I set up a makeshift portrait studio in my house, found a few old backdrops, and did a few posts looking for subjects willing to pose for a series of portraits. I tried my best to adhere to existing safety standards as they evolved and changed. Sixteen feet plus a cross breeze, windows on two sides, when I started.  I wore a mask and tried to focus my camera as my glasses fogged up. Masks changed, distances changed, and I started taking portraits of artists, art professionals, and creative individuals, some of whom needed gigs, needed headshots, and photographed friends willing to stand before the camera and share some time together. Mary Kelly, an artist I have long admired and studied with at the Whitney ISP came by. Ron Athey, a queer icon had some free time in his normally busy schedule. The unstoppable Rodrigo Valenzeula, Pau Pescador, Susan Silton, and so many others came. Doris Berger told me about a major show she was working on for the Academy Museum, and I was excited to see how each faced the challenge of a major pandemic.

The studio had a wall of windows, a fan, and enough room to place a backdrop and a camera 16 feet when I began. I invited the sitter to pose both with, and without a mask. As the pandemic wore on, the shooting conditions changed a number of times. Then came the vaccines, the variants, more masks. Sometimes I would have to stop fora period of time, depending on the Los Angeles County recommendations.  There was always a certain amount of risk involved, particularly in the beginning, and I found it very meaningful spending time with each person. Some of the models were friends or artists I admired. Others, I met for the first time. I hope the series will continue even once the official pandemic is over as it provided a level of connection that I found very moving. 

The portraits are mostly of artists, actors, arts professionals, dancers, models, trainers, writers, and friends. There is a strong queer presence, as well as representation from may different communities, and the works on view in this exhibition represent only a small part of the overall project. Then came the many Omicron variations.

After each shoot, I would share the images we had made, and provided the models a chance to let me know their favorites. They were able to download the images for personal use while I retained the rights to the images for exhibition. 

The portraits continued but with far less frequency and I am still shooting them, and still looking for willing models. For me, this body of work captures a moment of our collective lives and shows the fragility of life, the beauty of the creative community, and our shared desire to keep making work, to build community, and to celebrate one another.

A selection of images will be included in Sharing Space, a solo exhibition of my work at Luis De Jesus Los Angeles.

Nov 5 - Dec 16, 2022

Additional images can also be found on Portraits II page

Additional images can be found here