This is rush hour on Saturday afternoon in Austin, Texas April 4th, 2020.
Few of us have lived through anything like this pandemic in our lives. Even us ancient ones who've been around (and through) a lot of weird and scary stuff. Many of the changes to our way of life are sudden, profound and bereft of precedent. We are truly living through a transformative and perilous period and it would be good to have a record of what it was like to be in the middle of this. I shy away from concentrating on the health care (immediate life and death) aspect of the crisis because it would be selfish to intrude when every medical professional needs space and full attention to work. And, selfishly, I don't want to put myself or my family and friends in great peril just to get photographs.
But the economic ramifications may end up being equally severe and we need a record of this time as well. The Austin History Center put out a request for images that document how Austin and its citizens are dealing with the pandemic. They have photos that go all the way back to Austin during the Spanish Flu in 1918 and good documentation of just about every major upheaval (or positive thing) that's occurred in our city. Now they want to make sure people know that they would welcome good images that tell the story of our responses and our sacrifices during this trying time.
I can't think that Austin is alone in this desire for documentation and a memory archive. I would think that the responses and the real life changes will be different for small towns and giant cities; for once thriving economies as well as communities already dealing with painful financial adversity. And it's obvious that this is not an "American" problem but a world crisis.
I put on my rain jacket and my face mask and went out for a walk this afternoon. I walked up one side of the lake trail which put me on the east side of downtown. I then walked through the center of town with the idea of documenting all the closed and boarded up businesses as well as the empty parking lots, empty hotels and empty streets. If I could go back in time about three months and show these images to people who live here they would never believe that downtown could be so bare. And I've not begun to document the lines outside of grocery stores and legions of normal people behind medical (and home made masks).
It's something to think about if you are home and bored and itching for a project that has real bones and real value. It's not just another Zone VI exercise with a running brook made smooth with a long exposure... We can only bear witness if we photograph the world around us. As HCB once said,
“The intensive use of photographs by mass media lays ever fresh responsibilities upon the photographer. We have to acknowledge the existence of a chasm between the economic needs of our consumer society and the requirements of those who bear witness to this epoch. This affects us all, particularly the younger generations of photographers. We must take greater care than ever not to allow ourselves to be separated from the real world and from humanity.” – Henri Cartier-Bresson
Photography and video will form the cultural memory of this time. It's only by having lots of points of view that we'll aggregate a history that will tell the story.
It is obvious that there will be hard times ahead not just for people directly touched by the health effects and deadly fallout of the pandemic but by the severe and rapid closure of the economy. Young people's potential will be put on hold. Many businesses will fail and not re-emerge. There will be many sad stories to be told and the capturing and telling may help to inform future policies and decisions that will prevent the same kind of wholesale destruction in the next pandemic.
It's an idea and I'd love to get some feedback. I'm sure I'm missing a lot and haven't figured out entirely how to proceed, but I know photographers love projects and they love to tell stories. Please let me know your thoughts. Ethical considerations, etc. Here are the images I took today.
All the cafe tables gone. All the people scattered.
Menu monitors at Juiceland.
An un-manned Bank of America office.
Cafe Politique shutter behind a construction walkway.
No businesses open for blocks at a time. But it was nice that Loft left their lights lit.
2nd Street is usually packed with people heading to happy hours and early dinners.
Today everything is closed.
No cars and no guests at the W Hotel.
There are still some food businesses trying to make it with mobile ordering and
curbside pickup but one by one I'm watching them throw in the towel as it becomes
apparent that the cash flow out is unsustainable without a critical mass of customer.
I have never seen this parking lot vacant. Never.
Yeah. That's the GX8. I'll write about my experience with it tomorrow.
2nd Restaurant and Medici Coffee shop are closed up tight on Congress Ave.
And this is Congress Ave. at Rush Hour. No one is downtown.
Valet parking at the JW Marriott is boarded up and closed.
The hotel is not boarded up (yet) but it is closed down.
All the furniture and fixtures have already been removed from this corporate hotel restaurant.
The Royal Blue Grocery is now ---- particle board.
this is the location on Second St. Several others in the chain are still open
in downtown. The sell groceries. This one is near the convention center and further away from the residence towers....
Michaleda's tried takeout and then breakfast tacos and coffee and now they too
have boarded up the shop and gone dormant. They are right across the street from
the convention center.
Drop me a line and let me know what you think of the idea.
I'm going to flesh out my intentions for this and figure out how I will use and share the images in a way that's beneficial. If I figure that out I'll post about it.
Incredibly interested to hear how very small towns are dealing with this.