Concluding “D.C. Under Quarantine: A Visual Diary”

All images Leica SL2, with the 24-90 or 16-35 Vario-Elmarit lenses

It was eight weeks ago yesterday that the partners at the Washington, D.C. firm in which I work told our team that, for the foreseeable future, we would conduct business from home. In the office lobby where we had assembled everyone — in contravention of social distancing rules we would all soon learn — people exhibited a combination of relief, fear and a little bit of excitement at the adventure ahead of us. I told people that we would be apart for “at least the next two weeks.” That seems almost funny now.

Yesterday, Mayor Bowser — proving to be far more concerned about the safety of her citizens than the man in the big white house on 18 acres in the city center — let us know our indefinite lockdown still has some time on the clock.

Keeping a city of 700,000 at home while a pandemic rages is a hard thing to do, especially as the calendar has moved from the late winter cold through Washington’s genuinely epic spring season. We’ve been good about social distancing, Mrs. Tulip Frenzy and I, but as early as March 18th, I began walking around the city — often at dawn or at sunset, after working from home — embarked on a photo project. My goal has been to capture D.C. under quarantine, but in a very specific way we will get to in a moment. Aside from the initial reportage cited above, I have updated this project here once. Today — perhaps fittingly, a blustery, cold day that seems like the clock has been reset to mid-March — I bring it to a conclusion.

The project I embarked on two months ago was to capture the weirdness and beauty of Washington under wraps during its most beautiful season. I probably would have used my Leica SL2 to capture the Tulip Frenzy, and after it, the Azalea Frenzy, but when in the city, as readers of this site know, I am partial to black & white photography — to street photography that reflects the sublime grit of urban life. Under the lockdown, I was, if not shut off from the streets — in which I’d have to keep far greater distance from other people than I’d like — then at least encouraged to stay home, to stay in my Northwest DC neighborhood. And to the extent I went to public spaces, the quadrant I kept in was the D.C. that tourists inhabit — the Mall, the Georgetown waterfront, the Kennedy Center. White D.C. Safe D.C. Perhaps not coincidentally, the city’s most picturesque parts.

Which led to this inversion of my life, and approach. The approach I take when living not in the city but out West — early morning and sunset landscapes — was grafted onto my experience here, and I began to shoot urban landscapes with an emphasis on how beautiful the environment is, flowers in bloom, people mostly absent. It was different and thrilling. At first.

I began looking at the city from new angles, in new ways. And as I posted images on Instagram (@tulip_frenzy), I learned that in the lockdown, many of my friends were spending more time on Insta than usual, and posting color pictures of our city in bloom was cheering people up. And so, for a while there, it seemed I had a purpose — which you need during a lockdown! I resigned myself to deviate from the kind of photography I typically do when at home in D.C., in part due tocircumstances, in part as a social service. Or such was the rationale. My non-work hours were given over to driving to the Mall or other locations and going on walks, camera in hand, in search of good light. The earlier posts linked to above capture that journey. This final collection shows how late April and May progressed.

For a while there, it rained a lot, and one night I went out to see what I could find. I started by going to Ben’s Chili Bowl, on a deserted U Street, the night that Congress voted to replenish funds for the Paycheck Protection Program. Ben’s, a D.C. institution that has brought people together in a racially divided city for 60 years, was reportedly in dire straits, having been shut out of the first round of federal funds. It seemed outrageous that Congress was appropriating trillions of dollars, and yet an institution like Ben’s was dying for lack of access to it.

To drive through D.C. streets on a rainy spring evening with virtually no one visible — pedestrian or motorist — was passing strange. The drive to Capitol Hill was eerie.

At the Capitol, a lone staffer emerged in the rain hours after the vote to fund the PPP (which, happily, as it turned out, was able to provide Ben’s a lifeline.)

On my way home that night, I drove near my office and saw a sight that made me pull over and jump out with my camera. A man who seemed to be having difficulty staying upright peddled a bike in wobbly loops in front of the closed Tiffany’s jewelry store on 10th Street. It was too alluring not to try capturing it, which imperfectly I did.

As time progressed, more and more people came out during the daylight hours. Wisconsin Avenue was far more crowded with cars each passing day. I would drive to pick up my salad from the SweetGreen, usually listening to reports on the radio about the hellish conditions in New York, where people were dying by the hundreds. The journey which in March had seemed like I was the only soul braving such adventures, now had actual traffic. In the evening, when I’d go out with camera in hand, people were exulting in the spring weather.

Of course they were; it was springtime in Washington, which is to say, springtime in America’s most beautiful city in that season. And they had been — all of us had been — cooped up for weeks.

And yet, as the federal response from the White House faltered until they just seemed to give up… and guidance on social distancing and wearing masks seemed to be contradicted every day… until that crescendo of derp in which the president urged us to shoot up Clorox, even in D.C., there were signs that people weren’t taking seriously what needed to be done.

And then came the flyover by the Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, a welcome entertainment and a lovely thanks to the medical workers, but catnip for luring people out in the kinds of crowds we weren’t supposed to be in.

While my photography is decidedly not aimed at finding the visual juxtapositions and humor that are hallmarks of artists like Elliot Erwitt, Pentti Samhallatti or Craig Semetko, perhaps my favorite image from the entire project is this one below, in which the bird clearly did not get the memo about which direction air traffic control was sending those lucky enough to have wings.

I continued going out, camera in hand, taking pictures of our city under glorious light and bizarre circumstances.

As time went on, though — and it became ever more clear that the lockdown wasn’t for a short spell, but would likely continue into summer — I began missing my beloved Leica Monochrom, and the ability to take pictures in black & white. Mentally, although perhaps not in practice, I began to rebel against the self-imposed prohibition against street photography, because by definition it meant being in contact with people. One night I went to the Key Bridge and took landscape photos up and down the river at sunset.

The moon was coming up over the bend in the Potomac in front of the Kennedy Center. And to the Northwest, the Potomac flowed under the spires of Georgetown University. It was breathtaking, honestly, crossing the bridge as traffic went by, a few hundred feet above the river, staring at the scene below.

A short while later, as I walked back up into Georgetown’s empty streets where I’d parked my car, I took a photo that reminded me of the kinds of pictures I missed taking.

Earlier that day, Peter Fetterman — the great L.A.-based gallerist who has been posting images from his collection since the lockdown began there — had emailed the black & white image Willy Ronis took in 1934 of Rue Muller à Montmartre. It was foggy and mysterious and it made me think of the Exorcist Steps, so I walked over to them just as that woman above was ascending. This seemed like the photography I should be doing.

It has been a strange couple of months, and a highlight has been capturing these urban landscapes in a city I love. But I’ve decided to end the project here, on a high note, and get back to taking photographs in black & white. I wish everyone good health as we get through the pandemic. I’m going to continue taking pictures, just not part of this formal project of capturing DC Under Quarantine, as I’ve called it. It’s fitting that the last picture posted here would be of the U.S. Capitol on a beautiful evening, as the first picture in this project was of the Washington Monument at dawn. A beautiful city. A strange set of circumstances. Please stay well.

The full gallery of John Buckley’s images documenting D.C. under the Covid-19 pandemic can be found here. His Instagram feed is found @tulip_frenzy

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