Photographers have a name for it: the Decisive Moment. For painters, the power to lend a timeless dimension to life is part of what validates portraits and figure studies. So it makes sense that one of each — Provo’s journeyman photographer Justin Hackworth, who describes his work simply: “I photograph people,” and Pamela Beach, who gave up a professional painting career to raise six children, but 14 years later returned to actively exhibiting her art as an MFA candidate at the U of U — would join forces to interview ten students who felt the timely impact of Covid on their lives, and to flesh out their stories with a pair of portraits of each of them.
Those twenty portraits, accompanied by short testimonies by the subjects, are now showing at the Salt Lake Community College’s main campus under the witty exhibition title Quaranteens. Among them is Eliza, 14 when the pandemic put her life on hold, then gave her a new direction in a new place. Sara, who was eighteen when her own plans were upended, shares the larger story of how the collateral impact of Covid took the life of her favorite aunt, leaving her widowed husband a single father with three small children. One young man reports being largely untouched by the disruption of his education, while another implies his life was improved when the upheaval brought his family closer.
Utah is known among American states for its effective guidance and education programs for troubled young women. It’s also renowned as an excellent place to study foreign languages. It should come as no surprise that some of those who come here for the schools go on to find a linguistic vocation. As least one person who was undermined by the Covid Pandemic, who came here from Oregon seeking help, not only recovered her sense of purpose, but discovered a passion for languages. Perhaps seeing her portrait would help those who live here to more fully appreciate one of the reasons why so many people are drawn to Utah.
Each of the artists is known for a variety of creative approaches, but in this case they both chose a documentary technique. Hackworth dispensed with color, action, and grouping, all of which have lent his views of everyday life an enviable, lively quality before now. Here he began with black and white images, each subject posed alone before a dark background. Classic portrait photography calls for distant shots and a long lens to produce objective “drawing,” but here Hackworth works up close, even allowing the face to fill the frame, producing a more genuine effect. Beyond that, subjects were allowed to choose a pose and present themselves: it’s worth noting, for instance, how the student least affected by the isolation was alone in choosing to pose checking out his cell phone. The presence of the pandemic is suggested, even symbolized, by loosely gluing the ink prints like so many posters to wooden surfaces, so that creases, bubbles, and torn edges become part of the image: perhaps to convey some rough handling dished up by life.
Pamela Beach usually portrays her subjects singly and in color, as she does here, but she likes to begin with a more-or-less objective depiction of the visible, to which she will add invented elements, at times bordering on the surreal, with which she reveals invisible content like feelings. As an artist who enjoys spending time getting to know her subjects, these are secrets she has the opportunity to learn about them. For Quaranteens, she pares these extra touches back in favor of chosen colors, accessories, gestures, and setting details that convey some of the same insights.
Every one of these ten subjects recalls the pandemic through the medium of its impact on their families. Most describe it positively, but it’s worth noting that they didn’t all enjoy the same things, such as closer proximity with their siblings. Also, separations from friends caused by prior family moves are vividly recalled and seem potentially as important as Covid. Technology is generally credited with contouring the lives of those born or raised under its social influence, but the impact of Zoom on adults, who may struggle to conduct meetings with it, pales in comparison to those here, whose hours of remote school were not helped by having their additional, extracurricular activities forcibly confined to similarly remote systems. In the end, two lessons learned stand out. Uso, who like most people her age, began by believing her suffering was hers alone, eventually came around to understanding that “Whatever I’m going through isn’t unique or special.” And Dasha, perhaps the youngest here, experienced Covid in her native Ukraine, where it became her standard by which to judge when subsequently her country was invaded by Russia. Now safe here, thanks to the intervention of concerned relatives, she sees her new home in a different light than her new countrymen. “The teachers are more helpful, and everyone is really nice. People seem to care more.”
High praise, which we can only hope to deserve.
Quaranteens, Edna Runswick Taylor Foyer: SLCC South City Campus, Salt Lake City, through Sep. 13