Reflecting upon Ian Byers-Gamber
Despite their quietude, Ian Byers-Gamber’s series of portraits are striking reminders of how photography can uniquely commemorate extraordinary moments in our lives as they unfold. Many of us not involved with essential and emergency work experienced an abrupt suspension of our working routines and separation from our social and creative networks in the immediate axis shift of spring 2020 and the first pandemic lockdown. It called upon our resourcefulness, capacities to shift, and make use of what was readily to hand.
Ian Byers-Gamber is a Los Angeles-based photographer and videographer well-known within the regional artistic community as a sensitive documenter of art installations and performances and as a highly collaborative artist. His response to the reckoning called forth by the first lockdown was to find a creative way to acknowledge, serve and continue to interact with the artistic community of which he is a part. Starting with friends and his closest artistic collaborators and extending to artist-friends-of-friends and artists that Byers-Gamber was keen to meet for the first time, he invited artists to outdoor portrait sittings between March and September 2020. The arrangements for times of day; choice of apparel (some sitters dressed up for the occasion, others stayed in the ubiquitous lockdown attire of shorts and sweatpants); the choice to be photographed alone or with loved ones were decided by each invited sitter and signals Byers-Gamber’s acknowledgement of the need for him to relinquish some photographic control and keep every interaction simple, safe and socially distanced. Byers-Gamber drove to each location at the designated time, parked his car (sometimes double-parking or at inventive
angles in order to find the best photographic vantage point), wound down his car window to
reconnect and talk with the sitters before focusing his camera, propped up on a tripod in the
front seat of his car.
As a photographer who uses analog camera film for his independent practice, Byers-Gamber routinely kept a cache of photographic films and this allowed him to start his project with haste. Once his project was in full swing - requiring further film stock and film developing - Los Angeles’s Freestyle Photo & Imaging Supplies had started a curbside pickup service, and a local photographer went back to old-school basics and set up a film developing system in their bathroom at home, compensating for the complete shutdown of photographic labs in the city. Fortuitously, Byers-Gamber had acquired a large-format field camera just before the first lockdown and, along with his tried-and-tested 6x7 Mamiya camera, set the parameters for a project that has a slow and considered concentration embedded within it.
Perhaps the most pronounced good fortune for Byers-Gamber’s process was the transformative reduction in traffic on roads and freeways. Journey times nostalgically took us back to earlier iterations and remembrances of being in a markedly less congested Los Angeles and raised the possibility of (albeit solitarily) re-discovering the city. At the height of Byers-Gamber’s project, he arranged day-long excursions - appreciating the sense of purpose, nourished by conversations in places that were new to him, and making up to eight socially distanced portraits in a day.
This itinerant photographer - with his curious equipment and process - created a heightened and historic experience of photography as a definite occasion. As with much of Byers-Gamber’s practice, collaboration with his subjects and the animation of their contexts was central and there is a shared sense of photographer and subjects consciously marking this distinct moment in time. The often-present edges of the car’s interior around the open window in the photographs timestamp these portraits with the circumstances of their making. The purposefulness with which the subjects stand and sit, pause to allow the photographer to compose and capture their encounter onto a single sheet of photographic film is laid bare. Utilizing the space that the first lockdown engendered, Byers-Gamber’s seemingly simple action called forth photography’s enduring capacity to acknowledge our communities and connections, and a collective desire to be present and be seen.