By Erin Novakowski, October 21 2020—
At the beginning of the pandemic, when the city was in quarantine back in March, photographer Neil Zeller took a situation that was single-handedly suffocating his photography business and turned it into an opportunity to reach more than 650 Calgarian families in ways he would have never imagined.
Now on display at the Glenbow Museum in downtown Calgary, Zeller created “Porchraits,” a collection of family photographs he took outside, and sometimes through the windows of peoples’ homes. The portraits were all taken while maintaining social distancing measures, and they gave families an opportunity to have their time in isolation framed, to feel a bit less lonely.
The exhibition at the Glenbow is a collection of many of the portraits that were taken over the first few weeks of quarantine. Though there were too many in total for every image to make the cut, it is clear that every photo included in the gallery was chosen with care. Wandering through the exhibition certainly does feel like taking a stroll through your own neighbourhood, with every framed photo hanging on the walls an opportunity to peek into the lives and homes of fellow Calgarians. Every kind of family unit imaginable is represented in the portraits, with Zeller’s work showing everything from intergenerational family photos that seem to be spilling over with kids, to intimate photos of furry pals and their owners. Each photo, though it only captures a moment in the lives of these Calgarians, seems to tell a whole story about the people in the “porchrait.”
Some of the photos are particularly emblematic of the times in which they were created. Viewing many of them hit me with a strange kind of nostalgia for when the pandemic first started. Some feature unreasonable amounts of hoarded toilet paper rolls, and others, snapshots of Skype calls with loved ones who were trapped, quarantining in foreign countries. While some of the pictures could pass as regular old family photo sessions, many of them contain just as much chaos as we were all feeling during those initial weeks of lockdown. Some of the portraits are silly, others emotional, yet all acutely artistic in nature. One, featuring a couple posing against a gray wall, labelled Covid-19 Canadian Gothic” contains all the markers of the famous painting American Gothic — from the pitchfork and collared shirts down to the blank expression of its otherwise enthusiastic subjects. Some contain pregnant women just days away from their due date , and others newborn babies held by the loving parents that brought them into the world during such uncertain times.
With such a variety of emotions displayed through the pictures, exploring the exhibit truly does remind the viewer of all the things we experienced when COVID-19 first hit Calgary. I couldn’t help but think about all those diverse situations on exhibit and how, though we were all going through isolation in incredibly unique ways, lockdown brought us together in a way we had never experienced before. By taking photos of all these individuals during what will undoubtedly remain a historic period of our lives, Zeller highlights how important our families, friends, and communities were in getting us through the mess that was March. In more ways than one, “Porchraits” is a reminder of the enduring attitudes of the Calgary community. The exhibition represents all those families involved and how they supported each other through the initial stages of lockdown, but it also showcases all the people that rallied around to support Zeller and his business itself.
“Porchraits” does not currently have a confirmed closing date, but will continue to be shown throughout October. If you have not yet gone to see it, the exhibition is a lovely opportunity to continue to support local businesses during this time. If you’d like to take a bit of a trip down memory lane and see hundreds of smiling Calgarian faces beautifully photographed by Zeller, now is the perfect time to mask-up, pre-book a ticket and make your way to the Glenbow.