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Pandemic portraits: Lincoln artist captures strange new time in old-fashioned photos

Pandemic portraits: Lincoln artist captures strange new time in old-fashioned photos

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Michael Farrell spent the first few months of the pandemic staring into the 150-year-old stoic and stiff faces of unknown relatives and familiar strangers.

And they were telling him something.

The filmmaker and photographer had time to kill, so he’d started untangling his family history, putting names to the unidentified faces in old studio portraits. He was also finishing a book about the Union Pacific’s route up the front range of the Rockies, collecting pictures of historical figures such as Abraham Lincoln and William Tecumseh Sherman.

As he studied the photos, he thought about the ritual and rarity of photography in the 19th century.

“In that generation of people, you maybe had your photograph taken once or twice in your life. It was a big deal; it was something that was done for weddings, or to commemorate something, or nobody had a picture of Grandma and Grandpa and we better get one before they’re gone.”

And he thought about photography today, with everyone carrying a camera in their pocket and taking millions and millions of pictures, but so few of them careful or considered.

And at some point — he can’t pinpoint when — those thoughts coalesced into the Pandemic Portrait Project, prompting Farrell to build a makeshift studio beneath his backyard pin oak, set up a pair of 8-inch-by-10-inch view cameras, spend weeks taking test shots, and then seek subjects on Facebook.

Mike Farrell photography

Michael Farrell uses a homemade shutter release — made from a blood pressure cuff bulb — on his 8-inch-by-10-inch  view camera.

“I thought it would be interesting to do a formal set of portraits as we’re going through this,” he said. “What I’m really interested in is this moment in time for people: How do you look day by day during this COVID situation, and can you come over as you are and let me make a serious portrait of you that reflects your experiences?”

So he doesn’t want his subjects to dress up, or do anything special with their hair or makeup, or even smile.

“I don’t want you to be grinning for the camera. This is serious.”

Pandemic Portraits
Pandemic Portraits
Pandemic Portraits
Pandemic Portraits
Pandemic Portraits

After his first invitation earlier this month, he booked 30 sittings, and came up with a system.

His masked subjects show up and, because most are old friends he hasn’t seen for months, they catch up.

Then he gets to work. The first pose is a full-length portrait in the studio he built with plywood, floor tile, paving stones, sun shields and a 19th century-style backdrop he ordered online.

He disappears inside the fabric hood of his first large-format camera to focus, and then emerges to give final instructions. Among them: Hold still, because the slow shutter speed — one-eighth of a second — is unforgiving, and any movement will blur.

“These two big cameras, they’re not antiques, but the technology is about what you would have seen in the Civil War.”

Mike Farrell photography

Michael Farrell focuses his 8-inch-by-10-inch camera on Jim Lane as part of Farrell's series of pandemic portraits shot on large-format cameras in his backyard.

While he rearranges the studio for the second pose — more of a close-up — he asks his guests to fill out a form. Basic information, such as name, phone number and address. But he also wants to know what they do, what they’ve been doing, how they’ve been doing.

Among their responses:

Teaching changed dramatically. My life became a series of 4-8 Zoom meetings every day. So, I had to look nice from the waist up!

I feel a mix of emotions about my life under the pandemic — grateful to have a job where I can mostly work at home; frustrated at the state of our state and our country to be still managing so many sick and dying people …

In the pandemic, I’m considered an “essential worker” selling clothes.

While being isolated at home, my garden and my rescue dog have been my refuge.

The rescue dog’s name is Roxie, and she’s kept Lora Black busy the past few months.

The afternoon announcer for NET Radio is a history buff, and she recognized that Farrell was trying to capture history in the making.

“This is a once-in-a-century thing that’s happening,” Black said. “And I thought it would be neat to have a portrait like my grandparents had.”

She spent the first two months of the pandemic working from home, but she’s since returned to the studio. So she wore her work clothes to the photo shoot, and makeup, but didn’t do anything special with her hair, she said.

Farrell put out a second call for subjects last week, and booked a half-dozen more appointments. He has to finish shooting them, process the film, print rough scans, select the keepers and print final edited scans.

It’s a costly project. He pays more than $7 for each sheet of film, and exposes six to eight during every session. He pays for the chemicals to process the film in his basement darkroom, and he’ll buy the paper and ink for the digital printing.

Mike Farrell photography

Photographer Michael Farrell gives instruction to Jim Lane as part of Farrell's series of portraits shot on large-format cameras in his backyard.

He doesn’t charge his models anything. But he hopes to show his work at a gallery, when the pandemic is in the past, because he likes what he’s seen so far in his early scans of the images.

It’s rewarding work, he said. But exhausting, too. “At the end of the day, I’m pretty fried. I’m on my feet the whole time. And I’m interacting with people. And I haven’t interacted with people since March.”

Later, when he finishes the black-and-white prints and sends copies to his subjects, he plans to ask them follow-up questions:

What is your reaction? What does the photo say to you? What does it say about you?

They might be surprised by themselves, he said.

“It won’t be what they had in mind. It’s different from what people normally experience with photography these days.”

Video, photos: Creating community during crisis

Reach the writer at 402-473-7254 or

On Twitter @LJSPeterSalter

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