Portrait photograph 'Josh' by Fran Monks, 2020. 1 of an edition of 20. Portrait taken of Josh through a video calling platform while he worked from home. Produced as part of 'Social Distance - Lockdown Mark 1' series of portraits. Josh is shown facing the camera, with his computer keyboard visible to the bottom of the portrait. Pictures on the wall and a lampshade to the left. The photographer can be seen taking the shot in a small window top right. Text 'Josh is recording the call' top left. 'Skype' symbol bottom left. Signed and edition numbered below.
Fran Monks’ striking ‘Social Distance’ portraits capture the experience of the 2020 Covid-19 lockdown in both image and process. Speaking to her sitters through video calls, Monks photographed her computer screen, so that her own action is captured in the small window at the top of each image. Sitters are visible within their homes, and alongside their technology. The five sitters chosen for the Science Museum Group collection demonstrate a wide range of lockdown experiences, people who are hospital workers, home-schoolers, news editors, restaurant owners and those whose virtual worlds expanded, capturing both the positives and negatives created by the pandemic.
Monks explains, “This is Josh, the arts editor of PBS Newshour who interviewed me about my social distance series of portraits. At the time of the picture, he had been at home in Washington DC for about a month and was interviewing lots of people about their diﬀerent experiences of lockdown. I couldn’t resist but make a portrait of him, even though his Dell laptop had one of the notorious “NoseCams”. We had fun propping it up and making the best image we could with it.”
As a whole, the ‘Social Distance’ series shows us how photographers have found ways to continue working during lockdown as well as the immediate and fundamental role of video calling technologies in everyday life. Monks responded to disappearing work, as the UK entered lockdown, by turning to a past idea of photographing through a video call. Thanks to a social media callout she was able to gather volunteers from around the world, resulting in over 70 portraits. As a process, ‘social distance’ portraits presented challenges: the sitter had to take a much more active role in helping Monks to assess the space, check light levels, and work out the best frame for the portrait. Bandwidth and webcam capabilities became crucial alongside lighting and composition. Photographing the computer screen with her Leica, Monks plays with how the black outline of the screen mimics the black border on a dark room print. Even through layer upon layer of digital process, these portraits therefore echo more traditional photographic techniques, while also capturing how online media infrastructure has helped to shift our everyday interactions as video conferencing software has become more and more ubiquitous.
Monks’ portraiture aims to celebrate the under-celebrated: “During the height of the pandemic, individuals were making huge sacriﬁces by staying at home to keep others safe. I wanted to bring awareness to the important contributions being made by these people.”