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Enough With the Selfies. How About a Quarantine Portrait?


Self-isolation can feel like Groundhog Day. But one recent Sunday felt different — exciting, even — to Hannah Scott, 29, a stay-at-home mother (now quite literally).

She and her husband, Kevin Scott, who is in the military, and their two sons, aged 4 and 2, woke up early on their five-acre farm in Silverdale, Wash., where they raise ducks, pigs and goats. They made a special breakfast of waffles with chocolate chips and whipped cream.

They cleaned the front porch, the boys giggling as they blew pollen away with a leaf blower and swept away dirt with a broom taller than them. Everyone got dressed into their favorite spring outfits. Mr. Scott chose overalls.

They were getting ready for picture day.

Amber Serpa, 30, a professional photographer who lives in nearby Allyn, came over to take pictures of the family for a series she is working on called the Front Porch Project. For 15 minutes she shoots families with a Nikon D810, capturing them in front of their homes in the midst of stay-at-home orders. She does the work for free, from her car or the street.

Ms. Scott’s family was snapped alongside their farm dog Calvin, a Corgi. In one photo one son is holding his favorite duck and another son is shirtless, playing with a trowel. A piglet made it into a few photos. “There is something really special about being photographed at your home — we were all so comfortable,” Ms. Scott said. “She really captured the essence and the chaos of our family right now.”

For many households, the middle of a pandemic has proved the perfect time to be photographed professionally. For some, it’s a rare moment when the entire family is home and still, not running in different directions. Others simply want a fun activity or an excuse to put on makeup and nice clothes. The underlying sentiment is that this is a historic moment, worth preserving.

“It was a bright day,” Ms. Scott said.

Subjects have been urged along by photographers across America who, with many regular commissions canceled, have come up with new creative offerings like the “quarantine portrait.” The service has become so common, some photographers are trying to differentiate their work by using drones, props or an element of surprise to elicit spontaneous expressions.

“I know a lot of photographers that are doing front porch sessions or FaceTime sessions,” said Lara Mahler, 35, a wedding planner in New York. “We wanted a cool alternative.” She and her husband asked Johnny Cirillo, a photographer in Brooklyn, to take a photograph of them outside their apartment in the Ridgewood neighborhood of Queens.

A drone captured Ms. Mahler and her husband, Matthew Mahler, 38, an artist, from overhead. She had a towel on her head and he was carrying a coffee mug, and they leaned out two windows looking at each other.

Going to extreme lengths to focus on ordinary people is, for some, new territory.

Before the coronavirus Jennifer Blakeley, a photographer who lives in Niagara Falls, Ontario, was known for work with celebrities. “You probably know some of my main clients,” she said: Megan Fox, Vince Vaughn and Donald Trump Jr. Since mid-March, though, she has taken more than 150 quarantine portraits of families outside their homes.

Wanting people in their natural state, she surprises those who have signed up by emailing her, showing up at random times (she does tell them which day she will be coming) and calling only when she is at their houses. Some emerged in the middle of painting or had just gotten out of the shower.

“I stop for less than two minutes, and I don’t get out of my car at all,” she said. “I have a special lens that allows me to shoot from at least 50 or more feet away.” (She has managed to photograph one local celebrity: Jim Diodati, the city’s mayor, who stepped outside with his guitar.)

Ms. Blakeley is working to raise donations for her local soup kitchen and food bank. Other photographers, however, are trying to stay afloat financially.

Alex Ginsburg, a photographer in Memphis, makes a living from commercial business as well as events like anniversary parties and reunions, many of which have been canceled.

At the beginning of April Mr. Ginsburg woke up in the middle of the night with an idea. “We will call it drive-by shootings,” he said. (While some clients thought it was clever, he changed the name to “drive by sessions” out of sensitivity to gun violence.) Many of his former clients have commissioned quarantine portraits, for which he charges half of his regular rate because he spends much less time on them.

“It’s hurting me because they are my clients, and I would normally go and hug and kiss them before I get started,” he said. “But people are still smiling, and we can be just as silly from the car. I can still put squeaky toys on my heads to get kids to laugh if I have to.”

One of his clients, Barbara Williams, 76, normally brings her entire family into Mr. Ginsburg’s studio for a portrait. This year they did the drive-by session at her house. She was so thrilled with the photos of her granddaughters, 16, 13 and 10, on an outside swing, that she wants it to be the new tradition. “With the green grass, and the white houses, and the pink dresses, it just popped,” she said.

Sending a portrait to family and friends can be a better way to connect than a Zoom call.

Ms. Scott, of Silverdale, shared her family’s portraits. “We have family really close by, but we are social distancing,” she said. “So I was able to send our pictures to grandma and grandpa and mom and dad, and it was a steppingstone for us to get back together.”

Mr. Cirillo’s drone crashed recently after clipping a tree while he was photographing three brothers in the Bushwick neighborhood of Brooklyn. But it was worth it. “There are families and New Yorkers behind every window, and we are all hunkered down to fight this invisible monster,” he said. “This is something New Yorkers are going to take pride in down the line.”

Ms. Mahler said that her photo “is a way of remembering a very simple time in our life right now where we are safe and insulated. It is something I want to tell my kids about one day. Now we can show them our photo.”

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