March, 2020. Paris entered its first lockdown. City life stopped abruptly. Leaving home required an excuse and was limited to an hour a day within a 1km radius. Thomas Lohr, who had relocated to Paris a few months before, found himself confined to a fifth-floor apartment overlooking the normally busy thoroughfare of rue La Fayette. Blessed with a balcony from which he could watch the streets below, Lohr spent the next two months photographing the city under quarantine from a single vantage on his iPhone.
The resulting project, View Point, is a collaboration between Lohr and Olu Odukoya. Odukoya, who signed-on to the project without first seeing any of the images, treated the cache of Lohr’s photographs as found objects. Odukoya interpolates text and symbols reminiscent of public health signage, bringing into relief the pandemic-era contrast between pestilence and tedium. Here, formerly humdrum activities—grocery-shopping, jogging, dog-walking—have become special privileges and mortal adventures. City streets, once jammed with traffic, have been repurposed by masked pedestrians in efforts to maintain social distance. Within the cross-section of View Point’s Paris, uncertainty lives alongside boredom as if they’ve become features of the urban grid as much as crosswalks and stop lights.
Published by Modern Matter Books, 2020
Art Direction & Book Design Olu Odukoya @ OMO
Text Philippa Snow
There is no element of our society, major or minor — not the world of work, not love, not sex, not television, not politics or the economy — that is not altered in some way by a pandemic. Like war, it reshapes the landscape of the everyday, making the most banal scenes into something threatening and strange, and like war, too, it forces us reconsider the importance of art, beauty, creativity, and entertainment relative to our surroundings. In the case of Covid-19, the impossibility of being proximate to one another has led to the birth of an entirely new aesthetic style: SNL, the decades-long American TV show, is now filmed remotely, each star acting on their webcam; politicians offer speeches from their spare rooms; fashion brands allow their models to shoot selfies on their iPhones in lieu of expensive seasonal campaigns. The result is often eerie, disconnected, throwing into sharp relief the degree to which we are sustained by both contact and collaboration with each other. Our visual culture has never looked lonelier, more digitised, or lower-fi.
The best work being made under these new restrictions tends to lean into them rather than attempt to circumvent them: playing with negative space, proudly adopting the swift, stark digital format of the webcam or the iPhone, and heightening the discomfort felt whenever bodies appear too close to each other in the frame. (All movies, now, are horror movies, to be watched between our fingers as character kiss, ride public transport, or brush past each other on a busy street.) In View Point, photographs shot from the balcony of a Parisian apartment during lockdown become time-capsules for this uncanny and unlikely period of contemporary history, forming a portrait of a usually-bustling city under threat. The subjects’ style, all the more relevant because they are Parisians, is reduced to bright spots of colour: a blue scarf, some bright red luggage, a bright yellow snake-skin trench, a pair of Pepto Bismol jeans. Face-masks, one of the main visual signifiers of the crisis, appear frequently, making these already-anonymous pedestrians even more unidentifiable; joggers, making use of their government-allocated exercise allowance, appear and then reappear as if functioning on a loop. The title, View Point, appears as two distinct words in order to place emphasis on its dual meaning. These are images that have been made as an ongoing document of the view from the photographer’s own apartment; they are also, because of the fact that they have been created with the camera on an iPhone, consummate examples of the point ‘n’ shoot aesthetic that has characterised coverage of the outside world since the onset of the pandemic.
In keeping with the concept of the book, View Point’s design — incorporating brightly-coloured arrows and other symbology, as well as words frequently used by governments and global media during the Covid-19 lockdown — is intended to draw focus to the way that the pandemic has made ordinary aspects of our lives extraordinary, adding a layer of meta-commentary to Lohr’s documentation of the period. The approach is partially inspired by the “dot” works of the late conceptual artist John Baldessari, who frequently layered coloured dots over the faces of found images, flattening subjects into anonymous types rather than individuals, and commenting on the art industry itself. (These circles, sometimes painted on rather than collaged, are designed to mimic the ‘sold’ stickers from a gallery, or an auction.) In View Point, arrows plot out the trajectory of joggers, or mark out the sometimes-inadequate distance between strangers on the street, making what would otherwise be innocuous images of daily life into potential sites of terror and infection. Words that would not typically strike fear into the heart — “distance,” or “close,” or “crowd” — have new and unexpected connotations, looming over the images’ subjects like a curse. Above all else, there is that open, tarmacked space: pavement after dirty pavement, the book’s length designed to draw out the repetitiveness and the emptiness of life in lockdown, its uniform grey appearance. View Point is a document of a historic, chilling moment, hypnotic in its breadth and its repetitiveness, and perversely comforting in its distant portrayal of continued city life.
“All my projects have an excessive nature to them,” says the German photographer Thomas Lohr, a claim borne out by his self-published Gezeiten (2019), a book of photographs of a large rock sticking out of the water off the coast of Devon. Lohr visited the rock a long weekend every month for a year to photograph it under different circumstances, but always from the same vantage point, as a counterweight to his hectic existence as a fashion photographer. In 2020, soon after he had moved from London to Paris, Covid-19 put its own end to this hectic life. The lockdown limited Lohr’s action radius: “I wanted to document this moment, and since my balcony was the only window to the outer world, I concentrated on the street in front of me.” Lohr, like many others, felt it was important to stay in touch with friends during lockdown and to share his experiences. Those experiences were necessarily determined principally by the view from his window, and he documented it with his smartphone rather than his professional camera because “It’s more spontaneous, real, and represents the new way of documenting your life and surroundings. It’s well suited to scenes perceived as intimate and informal since everyone has a phone with a camera and is used to being captured by it.”
During the 56 days of lockdown in France – from 16 March to 11 May 2020 – Thomas Lohr documented in 35,000 images what he saw in the street, posting them every day on Instagram, as “the best way to get direct feedback.” This way of looking at the world made him better acquainted with his neighbours, the people who walked past his window every day: “Understanding their behaviour and patterns makes you feel connected to them. I feel like I know my neighbourhood and the people living here now.” Many interactions took place in front of his eyes, including fist fights and pickpocketing, but also everyday occurrences such as the woman next door shaking out her sheets, the downstairs neighbour eating his breakfast on the balcony, pigeons flying by, couples walking hand in hand, people riding mopeds, mothers pushing prams, garbage collectors doing their rounds… everything affected by the introduction of face masks in public spaces and, now and again, by the strange emptiness to which we all had to become accustomed during lockdown. “I could see the change of season and watch the arrival of spring: the look and behaviour of the people started to change,” says Lohr. “Early in the morning or before sunset the street becomes a grid with colourful moving points casting long shadows. I could see people from afar, and always tried to anticipate when and where they would pass my house.” This stream of images became a book, created in collaboration with the art director Olu Odukoya: View Point (2020), with a selection of photos that – according to the book’s accompanying text – ‘become time-capsules for this uncanny and unlikely period of contemporary history, forming a portrait of a usually-bustling city under threat’. The photographs confirm the social dimension of the project: ‘These are images that have been made as an ongoing document of the view from the photographer’s own apartment; they are also, because of the fact that they have been created with the camera on an iPhone, consummate examples of the point ‘n’ shoot aesthetic that has characterised coverage of the outside world since the onset of the pandemic.’
The installation in Huis Marseille places 125 selected images of individual social interaction in a grid. Together they acquire a photographic abstraction that has something in common with earlier periods in photographic history, but their origins tell a story at a meta-level of an historic, ‘chilling moment, hypnotic in its breadth and its repetitiveness, and perversely comforting in its distant portrayal of continued city life’, according to Lohr and Odukoya.