September 23, 2022 By Vaseline

Michael Farrell captures the pandemic era in portraits across 2 galleries


People look down from the walls of the Great Plains Art Gallery and WallSpace-LNK Gallery, all somber and serious, standing in place or sitting with their hands on a stand, all dressed in everyday clothes, all against sepia backgrounds Photographs, the FSA -Mix techniques and aesthetics from the 19th century/Civil War and the Depression era.

But the Wayfaring Strangers exhibition is not a documentation of the distant past. Rather, the photos capture a portion of Lincolnites in the early months of the pandemic, before vaccines were available and people were homebound.

They were shot by Michael Farrell using two large format cameras in a makeshift studio in his backyard that allowed for “social distancing” throughout the process, which began with Farrell speaking to the subjects to get a feel for their lives and ways felt and then took four pictures of each, two from afar and two up close.

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A total of 93 people were photographed for the project – more than Farrell initially anticipated.

All 93 are represented in at least one image in the two-site exhibition, which together presents 169 photographs along with explanatory text drawn from the limited edition book Wayfaring Strangers: Portraits Made During the Pandemic of 2020, written, photographed and published by Farrell.

The 19th-century references come not only from the sepia tones, but also from the serious, formal, still poses of individuals who might have had to stay put for minutes during the Civil War, but in 2022 just needed to be absolutely still for a second or two.

That sensitivity is best seen in one of the photos of 83-year-old grandmother Nancy Bradley, the eldest person, wearing a lace collar over her long-sleeved black top, standing with her hand on a pedestal and looking away from the camera — perhaps toward the future.

The connection to the Farm Security Administration comes first from the notion that the photos document a time of great upheaval – in this case the pandemic during quarantine – person by person.

But visually it asserts itself in the straightforward, respectful, almost dignified portrayal of the people who faced the camera and, in some cases, the feelings and emotions Farrell has captured through his lens.

The latter is most poignantly seen in a portrait by Malisa McCown, which captures the sadness she expressed in the statement that Farrell asked all subjects to write before the photos were taken: “My mother has early stage Alzheimer’s disease and is in good health themselves in a nursing facility. I hadn’t seen her since February 22nd and after seven months the course of the disease is dramatic. I fear how much time this pandemic will take from my family.”

McGown’s picture could be a Walker Evans, a huge compliment given the work of the Depression-era master of the large format camera.

A portfolio of these statements can be picked up while watching the show at the Great Plains Gallery so viewers can read what, if anything, each subject had to say. This gives the exhibition its documentary character and in some cases adds a certain visual understanding.

However, it is not necessary to read the statements to appreciate the photographs as distinctively created portraits, drawing on the work of fashion photographer Richard Avedon with his series of Western portraits. At the same time, it replaces the elitist Avedon’s condescension towards his subjects with the dignity and respect that FSA photographer Dorothea Lange has for those she photographs.

Throughout the exhibition, the photographs capture the subjects captivatingly with their faces and hands always sharp – they provide the ‘expression’ of the images, while the shirts and chest are often blurred.

The backgrounds vary depending on the day of the shoot – whether it was cloudy or sunny – and the time of day due to the natural light that flooded into the backyard studio. This variation carried over to the photographs contributes to the effectiveness of the exhibitions, as does the variation in image sizes.

At WallSpace-LNK, the 30 portraits are huge – 32 inches wide and 40 inches high. At Great Plains, some of the images are about half the size. But most of the 139 images are only a quarter the size of the larger photos in this gallery.

The larger images in Great Plains benefit the smaller ones by drawing the viewer with their scale, and then as the gaze moves to nearby small images of the subject they draw the eye into the detail and intimacy of the portraits.

A quick word on what Wayfaring Strangers is not: The project and resulting exhibit were never intended as an overview of a representative sample of Lincolnites/Nebrascans during the pandemic.

Because the subjects showed up for photos after seeing Farrell’s Facebook posts — they rather reflect the reach of his “social network” — meaning the majority of the subjects are older and white. However, there are a few black people, some families and a mother with a baby, the youngest person photographed at three months.

In fact, the most striking image of the lot is one of the younger subjects, Tenzin Moore, who, looking straight ahead, has a charismatic presence loving him.

In both galleries the photographs are presented unframed, mainly because the cost of framing more than 150 works was prohibitive.

Farrell has invested thousands in the 8″ x 12″ sheets of film used in the cameras, with the cost of paper, ink and chemicals used in processing and printing the images adding even more to the total for an exhibition, that never existed with the aim of selling the work.

“That’s not why I did it,” Farrell said. “I did it because I thought it would be really valuable in 100 years. These people showed up and trusted me to take a picture of what was going on as we went through this. I am very happy with the result and I think most of the people involved are too.”

In order to preserve the photographs as historical documentation, they were produced on archival paper from archival negatives. Both the prints and the negatives should last for centuries, Farrell said.

If the chemistry still exists, the images could be reproduced in a few hundred years to provide an artistic, intimate, less journalistic record of Nebrascans during the pandemic.

This lends added importance to Wayfaring Strangers, an invaluable collection that demonstrates how photography can function as both art and documentation to the benefit of both.

Wayfaring Strangers will be on view at the Great Plains Art Museum, 1155 Q St. through December 17th. It will be on view at WallSpace LNK, 1624 S. 17th St. through October 1st. Great Plains hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10:00 am to 5:00 pm WallSpace LNK is Thursday through Saturday, 12:00 pm to 5:00 pm or by appointment by texting 402-439-3684 or emailing opened at [email protected]