My Corona Street

There are few upsides to the current health situation across the globe but I discovered one and it was literally right on my doorstep. As soon as it became obvious that due to our age my wife and I would have to start self-isolating an idea popped into my head.

Since 1979 and Handsworth Self Portrait which I did with Derek Bishton and John Reardon I’ve been doing other self-portrait projects and was fully intending on helping to build on the already good community spirit in our suburban road in Birmingham UK by doing self-portraits.

But the onset of the virus made that impossible so it was a short creative step to think of doing portraits of the people in the street at their doorways with me at a safe social distance in the street or on their drive or front garden. I hoped this would show a sense of people under the lock down.Fortunately, as well as good relations in the street, a neighbour had set up a WhatsApp group for us and most of the street of 25 houses were on it. So that made it easy to set up the short photographic sessions with each family without knocking on their doors.

Early on and after a quick test on my own doorway I decided to use my 85mm Nikon 1.8 G lens on my Nikon Z6 as that gave a good safe distance while avoiding distracting diverging verticals on the homes. Years ago I had done a project trying to stitch together a street scene using a 28mm lens and fallen foul of perspective.

The first family I shot were also close friends and I knew they would take part so I strolled up the few doors away to photograph them. Apart from the self portrait projects I have always mainly shot available light and without a tripod for flexibility. I already knew I was going to crop square to concentrate on the doorway, the people and some surrounding detail and I had in mind converting to black and white. This was for artistic reasons but also to avoid the colour balancing issues you get shooting in different lighting conditions – one side of the street doesn’t get sun except very early in the morning.

Sid, Ruth and Elvin at No.3

Ruth: “I feel remarkably ok, so glad we self isolated early and now feel fairly confident of not having the virus. We are spending our days as busy as possible, exercise, home schooling, baking, gardening and sometimes really trying to spend time alone as well.
Work wise, I’m managing to squeeze some students in online while Sid is with Elvin but not feeling creative at all and not playing for pleasure either, hopefully soon.
Food, well we have never eaten so we’ll! No food shortages , just buying what we need, eating lots of rice and simple food and home making as much as possible.
Exercise is happening most days doing P.E with Joe Wicks and we find it really lifts everyone’s mood for the rest of the day and also it is strengthening our lung capacity incase we do become ill. Also doing lots of trampolining.
Contact with neighbours is life saving and so welcome.”

So, I arrived at the first house thinking one good shot for each family would be what I wanted. It went well and I thought I had good shots. But looking at them on the computer I quickly realised that one shot was not enough and I had three related shots which looked great in a triptych. But of course, as I had shot hand held, the background framing was not consistent enough. So the first triptych of Number 3 in the street is not as well-framed as the rest. But as I also wanted spontaniety I have not re-shot it. Later I asked everyone to give me comments on the lockdown to go with the images.

So from then on I have used a tripod so I can get the framing right and then shoot different arrangements of the people to get three frames for a triptych. I decided not to switch to the 1 to 1 option for framing so I would have some horizontal flexibility in adjusting the square crop later. I aimed to get the shots level for less editing but on a few I’ve had to level up later as the ground in places was soft and uneven and it wasn’t always easy to see the rear screen against the light – I found using the screen better than the viewfinder to keep better interaction with the subjects.

Often, I find portraits can be comparatively hard to get right when shooting individuals and groups, with some people saying they don’t like having their pictures taken. Interestingly with self-portrait shoots this is very much reduced and this also proved to be the case with this project. My impression is that by shooting at about one and a half medium sized car’s length away plus the camera being on a tripod combined with people being in a “safe” place on the threshold of their home meant they were all more relaxed so, in most cases, people naturally took up good poses and I had little suggestion to do.

Sometimes I had to swap over to my 50mm 1.8 S lens because shrubs and hedges got in the way so I had to step into the garden. At first I thought I would try to shoot straight on but soon relaxed when having to avoid obstacles so some shots are at a shallow horizontal angle or slightly up or down and the houses on one side are higher than the other. On reflection this gives some relief and difference while the overall feel is preserved by them all being square in black and white.

Shooting on a tripod with the 85mm G lens on the FTZ (adapter to fit old Nikon lenses to the Z camera) is normally fine but I discovered swapping to a Z lens is awkward as the FTZ hits the tripod plate so I decided to only use one lens on each shoot.

There was one neighbour who is an A&E (ER) doctor who was self-isolating in an upstairs front bedroom so I decided to reflect that by shooting him (on the day he came out of isolation) at an open window looking down towards the front door, followed by shots of him and his family at the door like the others. To do this and keep perspective as straight as possible I shot him with my 70-200 VRII lens from the other side of the street at around 200mm and then for speed shot the other pictures in the doorway with the lens set to 85mm.

Ali, Ban and Haider No 21
Ali, Ban and Haider No 21

Ali: “At work I feel determined and focused. It’s harder being at home because news and social media makes you feel overwhelmed. In a way the interaction with neighbours has increased and has been truly uplifting.”

Ban: “It’s been an emotional rollercoaster but as time goes on, it’s easier to cope with the changes. The more I distract myself the less anxiety I feel. I’m incredibly proud of our NHS and how people are working together to fight this. The neighbours have been brilliant and supportive.”

(Ali is a doctor in a hospital A&E (ER) department and until the photograph was taken was isolating himself from his family as he had symptoms of the coronavirus.)

Me and Val at No 16
Me and Val at No 16

And of course I had to include myself and my wife. Having the camera on the tripod made that easier, although the wind toppled it at one point but I caught it. For my shot Valerie pressed the shutter after I set it all up. For our joint shot I set the Z6 to time delay of 20 seconds and the to take nine shots at 20 second intervals to enable us to try different poses. It only needed one set of nine to do it.

I have had a lot of fun shooting this project. I’ve had fantastic interactions with everyone and got to know neighbours much better and in some cases met them properly for the first time. I even discovered one neighbour at the end of the road who I must have met 40 years ago when we both worked at the same community project in Handsworth!

Out of the 25 houses I have photographed 20 – four are not on the WhatsApp group so I have dropped notes through their doors but they haven’t responded yet – two are very elderly so that’s understandable. One neighbour is very private and didn’t want to take part but we get along fine. 

It’s been very rewarding and the reaction of all the participants has been really positive. I’ve added comments from participants about the effects of the lock down on their work, health and feelings as well as hoping to photograph the last few houses.

When I thought of the idea rather than, as is more usual, hoping it was original and that no one else was doing it I hoped other photographers would photograph their street. So it was a pleasure to find, when I was half way through the project, that  Stephen Lovekin a photographer in Brooklyn was doing a project with neighbours in their windows holding messages. Interestingly he turned out to be a friend of a friend but I had not previously known about him.

Reactions online have been very good. There have been more comments and likes on Facebook and Instagram than usual. I’ve discussed with my neighbours doing prints and perhaps a short run book and also holding an event in our local Hall after the virus has abated as a social gathering as well as an opportunity to display the images. There are also small galleries in Birmingham that may be interested in showing the pictures.

My Corona Street Gallery