Back in April when the first statewide stay-at-home order had been issued in California, Alon Goldsmith had an idea for a unique project.
For the next six months, he traveled around Los Angeles capturing images of people sheltering at home. At the beginning of the lockdown, Goldsmith’s wife showed him photos that a man had taken of his neighbors on their porches. Goldsmith was inspired to expand on that concept and photograph people in different places. He started by sending out a Facebook message to his friends to see who would be interested in having their photo taken.
“I had all this time on my hands, so I just headed out and started photographing people,” Goldsmith said. “Lockdown was the perfect time to do it, because everyone was at home and there was no traffic. It began to snowball from there. I’d photograph someone and they’d mention a friend or neighbor who was also interested in participating, so then I’d go photograph them. We were all in this weird lockdown situation together, and it was the perfect way to stay connected to people.”
Goldsmith is an award-winning photographer whose work has been exhibited in galleries in private collections around the world. For the project, he photographed a wide variety of people, including a homeless woman who lives on Ballona Creek, actress and Venice resident Alley Mills, a deaf activist from Compton, the president of KCRW, a best-selling author, several rabbis and rock stars, and dozens of other interesting and diverse Angelenos.
“Anywhere in LA was fair game,” Goldsmith shared. “I drove all over the place, from Glendale and Beverly Hills to West Hollywood and the Valley. I also took a trip up to Joshua Tree for a few days and photographed a bunch of folks out there. That was really cool because it’s such a photogenic place and the people are so interesting.”
At one point during the project, Goldsmith thought it would be interesting to photograph people in other states and countries, so over Zoom and FaceTime he captured shots of people in Alabama, Florida, Seattle and the United Kingdom as well.
After photographing more than 100 people and families across LA, Goldsmith realized that he had enough material for a book, and in December he published “In Place: Portraits of a Pandemic.”
“When I was putting the book together, I realized I had a lot of photographs — maybe too many — but it felt important to honor every single person that participated in this project,” Goldsmith explained. “Each shoot was a challenge because I had no idea what kind of set-up there would be, so I had to figure out what I was going to do once I arrived. The conditions I was shooting under were far from ideal, and some portraits turned out better than others due to lighting and other factors, but whether I got good photos or not, I wanted to include everyone because it was about documenting this period of time in an honest way.”
For each socially distanced shoot, Goldsmith captured three different types of shots of his subjects. In addition to a longer-distance shot of them in front of their home, he also snapped a close-up and a shot through a window or open door.
Subjects were also given a questionnaire to fill out about their experiences during the pandemic, and Goldsmith included their responses in the book. He asked a variety of questions ranging from the TV shows people were watching to their personal goals and dreams.
“The responses I got were very different, and I gave people the option to only answer what they were comfortable with sharing,” Goldsmith pointed out. “Some people provided long answers; others sent back really short ones. There’s a bit of an imbalance between the way all the stories are told, but I wanted to stay true to what they gave me. Everything in the book is arranged in chronological order as well.”
Looking back at the project, Goldsmith said that one of the most memorable people he photographed was a homeless woman named Salty who lived in a tent on Ballona Creek. Goldsmith met her one afternoon while riding his bike and ended up spending an hour with her.
“She had built this incredible art garden from found objects and had this whole vision of how she saw it developing and what she wanted to do with it,” he said. “She planned to give people tours and include a performance art aspect. It was extremely interesting.”
Goldsmith is currently in the process of planning a second book that will focus on pandemic portraits of other photographers.
“I’m going to use my phone for this project and take pictures of them either at home or at a significant place where they’ve spent time during the pandemic,” Goldsmith said. “I’m also going to have them submit their favorite photo they took with their phone during the pandemic. I’m thinking about having them photograph me while I photograph them as well. I’ll also ask them to share their experience of how the pandemic affected their photography.”
Since the book came out, Goldsmith has received a lot of positive feedback and many people have told him how grateful they were to be included in the project.
“During a time when everyone felt separated from one another, this allowed me to connect with people,” Goldsmith shared. “Many of the people I photographed were friends or acquaintances of mine, and I felt very fortunate to be able to stay connected with a lot of people and see what was going in their lives. It was a bonding experience that was very intense and pretty powerful.”
“In Place: Portraits of a Pandemic” retails for $78. For $95, customers can select a cover photo of their choice from the project for a custom version of the book. A high-resolution PDF version is also available for $10.