Brace yourself. Grab some tissues. Because today the National Portrait Gallery launches Hold Still, an online exhibition featuring 100 photographs taken by ordinary people during lockdown. And, while some are predictable, many are not: they pierce straight through.
The idea came from the gallery’s patron, the Duchess of Cambridge, who knows a thing or two about photography. Back in May, she invited the public to contribute to an open-call “community project”, recording everyday life amid the pandemic: hold still, Britain, while we take a photographic portrait of the nation. Of course, this came at a time when all of us, at the government’s behest, were “holding still”.
Though Kate did offer some guidance, suggesting a few themes, the ambition was to be inclusive, not prescriptive – and, over six weeks, more than 31,000 photographs were submitted. These were whittled down to the final hundred by a panel of judges (including the duchess). Since the gallery remains closed for refurbishment until 2023, the photographs are, for now, available digitally. But there are plans eventually to show them across the country.
While works by professional photographers did make the final cut (frankly, they stand out), this isn’t a conventional fine-art exhibition. Indeed, dozens of images are – in a technical sense – weak or flawed. Few, though, are forgettable. The judges weren’t bothered about aesthetic issues such as composition or lighting. Instead, they wanted emotion – often heart-wrenching, sometimes uplifting – and a sense of real lives being experienced by real people.
Scrolling through brings back all-too-raw memories: the daily privations and lurches of despair; the worry, grief, but also flashes of joy. And that strange, topsy-turvy sense we’d all slipped into a parallel universe. Specific textures and details are recorded, as well as defining moments. Empty supermarket shelves. NHS workers in makeshift PPE. Rainbows decorating windows. Tears, laughter, Black Lives Matter, VE Day. And, of course, Captain Tom Moore, medals glinting on his gold-buttoned blazer, giving a thumb’s up.
Certain tropes recur. Elderly people celebrate milestone birthdays in care homes, surrounded by masked staff rather than smiling offspring. Architectural elements – blurry fence posts in the foreground, say, like out-of-focus prison bars – convey a sense of confinement and isolation. And it is astonishing to note how expressive a set of eyes can be, even when a face is masked.
Strangely, there are very few pictures of people actually sick with the virus, while only a handful (and I write this as a father of three small children) capture the stressful rough-and-tumble of cooped-up family life.
But there are surprises: moments that, described a year ago, would have seemed improbable, bizarre. And harrowing. A man wearing a suit and black tie “attends” a funeral via Zoom. A gran hugs a kid through a homemade “cuddle blanket”, aka a thick plastic sheet with floppy green appendages, like gigantic washing-up gloves, for her hands. These are distressing reminders of how remote and alienated life has become. Surrounded by protective barriers, we attempt to forge vital emotional connections with loved ones through masks, windowpanes, computer screens.
Is there a single image that sums up Britain’s lockdown in the way that, say, documentary photographs by Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange captured the Great Depression? I’m not sure there is – in part, because lockdown, initially understood as a great leveller, turned out to affect people in profoundly different, and unequal, ways. Consider the myriad characters we encounter in Hold Still. A bright-eyed girl claps enthusiastically on a Thursday night. An exhausted nightshift worker in Wales seems on the brink of collapse. What do they have in common with the 17-year-old twins afflicted with ennui, trapped behind a window’s mottled glass?
That said, there is one image I can’t shake which hints at universality: Hayley Evans’s Forever Holding Hands shows a close-up of the interlaced hands of an elderly couple, married for more than seven decades, clutching each other tight from adjoining hospital beds. Here is devotion – and solace: after contracting the virus, they died five days apart. It’s a simple thing, touch – but a primal one, too, denied in recent months. “What will survive of us is love,” wrote Larkin, at the end of “An Arundel Tomb”. I so hope he’s right.
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