Pandemic Portraits: A Celebrity Photographer Documents Masked Angelenos
A call was put out on Instagram: Free masked portraits, DM for address. A sign popped up in the yard for passers by and a community of friends, strangers, and social media followers came by to document this strange time we're all trying to get through.
It was the idea of Kevin Scanlon, an award-winning Los Angeles-based photographer, who normally shoots celebrities (Cate Blanchett, Donald Glover and Neil Young, to name a few.) Scanlon's jobs had dried up at the beginning of the pandemic and he was looking for another way to create and connect.
So over three weekends in May an unassuming driveway in Los Feliz turned into a legit, if slightly make-shift, portrait studio.
"This project is helping me cope, you know?" Scanlon said. "I'm sort of trying to come to terms with how to read people by their eyes and only by their eyes, that's all we get now. Plus I get to see my friends again, who I haven't seen in a long time."
There's much talk about people not wearing masks these days and the reasons behind that, but in Scanlon's driveway, people thoughtfully explained why they were wearing masks and how they were navigating life in a pandemic.
Jennifer Verdier came by for a portrait and a visit. She hadn't been outside the house for anything except groceries and essentials and seemed almost giddy.
"Kevin and I are old homies and I saw [the Instagram post] this morning and thought, why not do a pandemic photo shoot?... I don't go out very often, I'm like a feral cat. At this point I haven't been this far from my house since it was cold out."
The mood in the driveway was friendly; folks chatted as they waited their turn, watching as people stepped up to the backdrop that was taped to the side of the house and sandbagged down to create a DIY studio. Scanlon worked using two different cameras, a medium-format and a 35mm, toggling between the two as he gave direction to his subjects from behind his outlaw-style bandana mask. Several times he gently instructed his subjects, "chin down" and "a little closer to me."
"I talk a lot during photo shoots, which I'm sure a lot of publicists hate me for, because they just want to get the shot and go...but, to me, having a conversation allows people to forget that they're being photographed and to generate those authentic moments that I'm after," Scanlon said.
Everyone who came to the shoot had a different kind of mask, their personality on display. Some were homemade, some store bought, some improvised scarves, and some were military-like filters. And it wouldn't have been a gathering in Los Angeles without a few (unmasked) pups thrown in the mix, too.
Skippy Simon came with an agenda, double masked and gloved. He wanted people to understand how very crucial it was: "I want people to wake up and realize: Hey, wait a second, maybe I should be taking this (expletive) a little more seriously."
For a few people, the experience was poignant. Becca Weber spoke of how exciting it was to have a reason to shower that day, then got a little choked up while talking about what it meant to her to be there.
"I think that capturing people in this moment in time is something we'll want to look back on. Finding little bits of sunshine or sadness. There's just so much that we can't see behind people's masks right now. I'm a pretty smiley person and I feel like I have to do so much more...it's just cool to be around people again... I didn't realize I would be so emotional."
Costume designer Suzanne Barnes spoke of the challenges to the film industry brought on by COVID-19. "It will take a lot of getting used to, but obviously I understand it's necessary and safe... I know we're all going through it, we're all in it together, which is really important."
One hears that a lot lately, that we're all in this together. And you know what? For a few hours, from a safe distance, on a sunny afternoon, on the side of a busy road, we kind of were.
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