This project began, in those desperate early days of Los Angeles’ first lockdown order, more as a lifeline than anything else. Unemployed and unmoored, like so many others that March, I’d driven across town to visit with a friend -- them on their second-story balcony and me in my car, chatting on our phones from across the expanse -- and it felt miraculous. We talked for close to an hour. Waving goodbye, I took a crooked picture of them through my window.
I filled the next few weeks in this way, frantically crossing and recrossing Los Angeles multiple times a day, photographing both intimate friends and artists I’d had to work up the courage to contact. The visits were nourishing. It felt necessary, even, to share space with those I missed and meet others for the first time; given the generosity and enthusiasm with which people so often responded to my proposal to photograph them, I like to think that the visits comforted them, too. The city became smaller, in a way, distances folding in the absence of traffic. Bigger, too: communities expanding while new ones formed to meet the human needs failed by existing institutions.
In hindsight, It feels natural that my work on this project slowly tapered off when the uprisings began that summer. The project had anchored me in a bewildering geography that pushed and pulled me from the people who make up my community; as I reevaluated my position on this social geography, my own stakes and responsibility in a politic of liberation, the ground came to seem less treacherous, the people less remote. I stopped taking the portraits as I stopped needing to.
A year later, in a Los Angeles that looks much like the one we left last March, I’m tempted to call this show a bookend. I’ve sometimes imagined the last photo in this series, a portrait of my partner Jinha and our dog Beans in the passenger seat they’d often occupied during those distant visits. I haven’t taken it yet, though, because it feels strange to do it now, so removed from the conditions that motivated the first portraits. It feels stranger still to pretend I could conclude this project while the pandemic is so far from over. Better to call So Close Right Now a bookmark -- a reminder of what I owe each person who sat for these photos, a proof of those tethers that keep us afloat.
Ian Byers-Gamber, as told to A. Jinha Song
As the Director of CSU Dominguez Hills’ University Art Gallery, I don’t often write publicly using a personal voice. On the occasion of Ian Byers-Gamber’s exhibition, So Close Right Now, I do so because it is that personal engagement that inspired Ian’s project, and in turn inspired me to bring the project to the University Art Gallery. During the pandemic we all created new routines to thwart the chaos of the constant change, the unanswerable questions, and the loneliness.
Artist Ian Byers-Gamber makes his living documenting artwork installed for exhibitions and the people of the Art World at openings and other events. During the pandemic Ian decided to turn his work life into an art project driving hundreds of miles back and forth across Southern California to document people in his community: artists, curators and other cultural workers. He photographed them from the driver’s seat of his car while the subject stood at their front door, on their lawn or some other public place at their residence or studio. He posted some of these pictures on social media. The project was a touchstone for me.
In early March 2021 I was thinking about the pandemic and how we were a year in to having our lives disrupted to overcome COVID-19. I was thinking about the impact the pandemic has had on me and what it’s provoked me to consider. It also made me think about how the year has impacted the CSU Dominguez Hills’ student population, and how difficult it must be to try to maintain enthusiasm for one’s college experience when there is no community with which to engage. This brought me back to Ian’s photodocumentary project. It reminded me that in different ways we’ve all created projects for ourselves- public, private or otherwise.
Ian’s project reminded me that while there were so many difficult things about staying at home, and living life so differently, the pandemic work-from-home orders also humanized us. We all saw the more personal sides of one another working together, but on screens. My students watched me bumble through screensharing difficulties and family interruptions. My research collaborators and I got to know the spaces in which we each work and recognized when there was a change in environment. We have all become a little more human to and with one another. To me, Ian’s portrait project exemplifies this. His project took advantage of the down time, the lack of traffic, and the flexibility people had at the beginning and created a series that beautifully documents how much we’ve missed each other.
As we are not quite back to normal operating, I am honored that Ian has been willing to work with the Gallery to create an online project from So Close Right Now and that we can, in turn, share it with you.