Neil Kramer tells stories - with his photos, writing, and films. Humorous and compassionate at the same time, he tackles themes taken directly from human life - including his own. When he found himself locked into a small apartment in Queens, New York, with his mother and ex-wife during the still ongoing Covid-19 pandemic he ended up making the best of the situation: he turned it into a quirky and humorous photo project. His posts of portraits showing the family in often strange situations went viral on social media platforms and have been widely featured on television and in newspapers, and won many awards. We are honoured that Neil agreed to an interview for The Pictorial-List, in which he tells us about his project "Quarantine in Queens" and how he and his family have been dealing with the pandemic.
Tell us a bit about yourself. When and how did you become interested in photography?
I’ve always loved photography, but I’ve had more of a career as a writer. I lived in Los Angeles for several years, writing and developing scripts for TV and movies. I also attended film school at USC where I studied film production. I began to fully immerse myself in still photography when I moved back to New York and got hooked on street photography.
November 6, Quarantine in Queens, Day 233. Months ago, when the pandemic started, I gave my bed to Sophia, and I've been mostly sleeping on the old sofabed in the living room. The mattress sucks; it sags and creaks. During the last few weeks, I've been having bad dreams at night about the current President of the United States. Today, Sophia surprised me with a new sofa bed. It's a perfect day for it to arrive seeing how the election results are in. I hope to have fewer bad dreams now for two reasons - a better mattress and the end of a national nightmare.
How did it happen that you ended up in quarantine with your ex-wife and mother?
It’s a complicated story, but let’s just say that I was living in my apartment while my mother was in Boca Raton, Florida, but she decided to come back after her lease expired. At the same time, my ex-wife had a plumbing disaster in Los Angeles and she had to move, so she asked if she could stay with me for a few weeks. And then the pandemic happened, and we all got stuck together. And we are still together in this rather tiny apartment with only one bathroom, trying to figure out our next step.
Pre Covid: December 3, 2019. With my mother not going to Florida this year, I'm with my mother AND Sophia, my ex-wife, in Queens for the winter, and since Sophia brought her car from Los Angeles, I just bought my first ever snow shovel and ice scraper in preparation for any possible big blizzard that traps her car in the snow. Here I am celebrating with my family in honor of the big purchase.
What triggered the idea of this photo project about it?
During the early days of the pandemic, it became impossible to do street photography, so it seemed natural to start taking photos of our lives inside the apartment. At the time, Queens, NY was the epicenter of the pandemic in America, and it was scary. Taking the photos became a collaborative way of using art as self-therapy, much in the same way that others started baking bread or knitting sweaters. And because I had some experience in comedy writing in California, I tended to gravitate towards the humor of the situation, at least at first.
April 12, Quarantine in Queens, Day 31. A beautiful friend from Colorado finally mailed us toilet paper and we are celebrating and in tears. April 6, Quarantine in Queens, Day 385. "I feel like we're in limbo," said Sophia, as we watched Murder She Wrote with my mother. "We're all vaccinated, but there are still too many variants to travel anywhere. "That gives me an idea for a photo. How about we're all doing the limbo?" "The limbo?" "You know - the "How low can you go?" dance. Like a metaphor of our living situation after vaccination. We're in limbo. We're all dressed up and ready to go, but we're waiting for the rest of the world to get vaccinated. For the bar to go higher." "That doesn't work because when you do the limbo the bar goes lower, not higher." "What does it matter? It's just a metaphor. Being in limbo. Living between heaven and hell." "You know, I'm not sure anyone under 40 even knows what the limbo is." "Of course they do," I said, turning to my mother. "Mom, everyone knows the limbo, right? "Chubby Checker," replied my mother. "You see, Sophia? Everyone knows the limbo." "Everyone who watches Murder She Wrote knows the limbo."
And what did your ex-wife and mother think when you presented them with this project idea?
They already knew that I always had wacky creative ideas, so they were comfortable in playing along. But as the project got more followers on Instagram and we got some media attention, such as in the Washington Post and the Today Show, it became a little more difficult in dealing with the attention.
June 13, Quarantine in Queens, Day 91. I've now spend three months alone with little outside contact other than these two women. You would think that this femininity would be rubbing off on me. Maybe it has. I mean, in many of my photos, I've been the one either undressed or wearing a dress. But in reality, over the last three months, I've never felt a stronger sense of masculinity and responsibility for these two people, probably the two most important women of my life - my mother and ex-wife.
What was your process in creating this series?
The series was never intended as a project. It just happened, without a plan. I never expected this pandemic to go on for over 500 days! Usually the daily post was based on a real life experience, which we would restage later in the day when we had more perspective and time.
January 19, Quarantine in Queens, Day 308. "What day is today?" asked Sophia. "It's Monday. Or maybe it's Tuesday," I answered. "What's today's date?" "I have no clue." "How many months has it been?" "Ten? Eleven?" The weariness is written on our bodies. And soon we will be out of space.
The images are quite humorous - does this reflect how the three of you took the entire situation?
The humor in the photos was one of the most confusing aspects of the project. The humor is funny, of course, but it was frequently a coping mechanism to express our own anxieties, and even though some of the shots are over-the-top, they were pretty serious. I think the best humor comes from a real place.
May 20, Quarantine in Queens, Day 70. One of the arguments for not wearing a mask outside is that it is a free country. To many, asking someone to be inconvenienced is an infringement of personal freedom. If someone is at risk to the virus, like seniors or those with medical issues, they should just stay home. That is easier said than done. After months ago home, it becomes an infringement of personal freedom for seniors and those with medical issues to be stuck at home. After our trip to the park last week my mother tasted the flavor of freedom, and she liked it. My mother's friend, Shirley, called. She used to be the same blouse size as my mother, but because of an illness, had lost a lot of weight. She had a bunch of brand new outfits from Bloomingdale's that she never wore that were now too large. Can she drive over and give them to my mother? At first, Sophia and I nixed the idea. My mother bristled at out helicoptering. We came up with a compromise. I would go downstairs and pick up the blouses from Shirley as she drove by in her car. When it was time for Shirley's arrival, I found myself on an important zoom conference call. Sophia was about to have a virtual conversation with a doctor at NYU. We were forced into the inevitable - my mother would have to go downstairs ALONE and pick up the blouses. It would be the first time she's left the house alone since March. "What's the big deal?" some of you might ask. My mother is active and independent, and can go outside by herself. She's not a child. But there are a lot of people out there who don't wear masks, even in our neighborhood with one of the highest Covid-19 infection and death rates in the world. We told my mother that if she goes out by herself, she has to wear a mask, gloves, and goggles to protect her eyes. "Why don't you just wrap me in the shower curtain?" my mother asked, sarcastically. December 28, Quarantine in Queens, Day 286. My mother has always been more of a canned vegetables type of cook. She also makes a great tuna fish sandwich. Sophia is a gourmet cook and has been spoiling us for months with delicious exotic meals and freshly baked bread. My mother also found a new kitchen-related passion -- she has become obsessed with keeping the kitchen clean, even constantly checking the oven to see if anything was left behind. Maybe this pandemic turns everyone OCD. This has created some tension in the house lately between the two women. This kitchen is not big enough for both of them. Luckily, I know how to diffuse any situation. When our old fridge finally died last week, I ordered a new one, not realizing that I bought a model where the door handles were on the wrong side. So now, no one can open the fridge or the oven! Problem solved.
How much truth is there in these pictures?
This is a question I get asked a lot, and the best way to answer it is to say “it is true to me.” I'm not a journalist, and the shots are staged in a theatrical manner, but they are all based on truth. My mother did walk in on me when I was in the bathtub, but the photo is a dramatization of the moment which is better composed and lit by speedlights.
July 3, Quarantine in Queens, Day 474. I need to be strong. I need to be fit. I need to fight aging. I need to be successful. I need to be smart. I need to be good. I need to be sexual. I need to be respected. I need to admired. I need to be loved. Ok, I think one push-up is a good start for today. September 29, Quarantine in Queens, Day 195. I had a dream last night and I was wearing a mask - in the dream. And even though I was asleep, I was able to question myself, "Why am I wearing a mask in this dream? I don't need to wear one in my inner life, in my private thoughts, or especially, in my dreams? Is the pandemic now inside my head?"
How did it feel for you to become part of the picture? As photographers we are usually behind the camera, most of us are a bit "camera-shy". (Of course there are exceptions, some photographers choose to make a lot of self-portraits.)
Over the last seventeen months, I have taken so many self-portraits, including ones where I am naked, and I have no idea where this side of me was before. I rarely took self-portraits before the pandemic. I don’t have much interest in myself visually. Probably the real reason for so many self-portraits is that it is hard to motivate your impatient family for so many months without them getting pissed at you, so I decided to take more self-portraits because I knew I was always available at 3am.
Now that a degree of normalcy seems to have returned to life in New York City, do you have a different appreciation of life? What are some of the things you missed especially during lockdown?
It’s funny how things so quickly change. If you asked me these questions two weeks ago, I would have a different answer. Now all of a sudden, the Delta variant is here, and some countries are going back into lockdown. NYC has achieved some level of normalcy, and the greatest gift is seeing friends again. But it's summer now, and we can all meet outside. I’m worried about the fall and winter months, even if we are vaccinated.
November 26, Quarantine in Queens, Day 253. Thanksgiving, 2020. If there is one public event that I love in New York it’s the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. So, we were disappointed when we found out that this year was going to be a TV-only parade because of Covid-19. But then Sophia had an idea. We could buy some big animal balloons on Amazon and then parade around our living room, making our own special Thanksgiving Day event! We received the balloons from Amazon, and this morning, all we had to do was blow them up. We saw online that the Party Store would inflate balloons not bought in the store for a fee, but when we got there, we were told that the new policy was prohibiting them from touching any balloons not bought at the store, because of the pandemic. We called the dollar store, the florist, the stationery store, and the hookah store, but they all refused for the same reason. Our plans were falling apart. Who wants to do a parade with droopy balloons without any helium? Was this another casualty of the pandemic? This is when Sophia remembered the Halal supermarket where she bought "loosies," when no one else would sell us anything but a $20 full pack of cigarettes for a photo shoot we did recently. Would they also be able to blow up our balloons during this parade crisis of ours? Thank you, Halal Supermarket, for making our Thanksgiving Day a special one. You just made America great again!
Are there any things you actually miss about the quarantine situation you found yourself in?
Unfortunately, I’m still living in the quarantine situation, not as intensely as before, but it is still here. But I have wondered if you isolate yourself for too long, it becomes the normal, and it is difficult to return to life as it was before, almost the way a prisoner who is let out of jail sometimes wishes he was back in prison. Life is just easier when you don’t have so many choices. But I wouldn’t say that this was “missing the quarantine situation,” but part of the lasting trauma.
March 20, Quarantine in Queens, Day 368. Ever since my mother received her vaccine, she has been acting like a woman released from prison, which in her case, means she can go to the supermarket again, something she was deprived of for over a year. But since there are still Covid variants out there, my mother cut a parole deal with Sophia that she can only go shopping as long as she is at the doors by 7AM when the store first opens. So now, every morning, I hear the clang clang clang of her decades old shopping wagon banging into the front door or the wall, while I'm trying to sleep. There are three supermarkets within walking distance of our apartment building, one of the reasons my parents chose to live here in the first place. Yesterday, my mother came home from Aron’s with a 5-pack of Passover matzoh. The Jewish holiday is in 2 weeks. "Aron’s is trying to get everyone back inside with these incredible deals. Five boxes of matzoh for $2.99!" "That's great," I said and fell back asleep, my ribs still hurting from when I fell off the unopened sofa bed two days earlier. Sophia had taken me to urgent care that day, but the line was so long for Covid tests, I decided to just skip the x-ray. This morning, my mother again banged the door and wheeled her wagon into the kitchen, having just shopped at Key Food. "You're not going to believe this," she said as she pulled out another huge 5-pack of matzoh from her steel chariot. "Key Food gives you a free 5-pack of matzoh if you spent $50! And tomorrow, I'm going to Food Universe for a buy one, get two free sale! "Why do we need so much matzoh?" I asked. We're still in a pandemic. No one is coming over for Passover." "You never know who might show up." Sophia stepped into the room, having been awoken by our conversation. We talk THAT loud in our home. "We do know who will be here for Passover," said Sophia. "Just the three of us. Unless the prophet Elijah shows up." "OK, I'll admit it. This has nothing to do with Passover. I just really missed going shopping." As they say in the Passover Haggadah, "Last year, we were slaves in Egypt. This year, we are slaves to Key Food." January 31, Quarantine in Queens, Day 320. Every day, my mother is doing physical therapy to heal her hurt shoulder, meaning she is the only one in this household doing any exercise. She's actually quite amazing. In two weeks, she gets her second vaccine. We have even nicknamed her "The Thunderbolt." It is also, according to some sources, the name of her top-secret space laser that she will soon launch to cause more wildfires in California.
We read somewhere that you are a member of Photographers Under Confinement: Engaging Corona Around the World. What does this association do, and how many members does it have?
It’s a Facebook group consisting of hundreds of photographers from around the world, all sharing their pandemic photos on social media. The pandemic has almost become an artistic category nowadays, and there are competitions of Covid-19 related photos. For me, the group was more special - a way to see that this pandemic was truly international. That none of us was alone. This world is so small, and interconnected. It didn’t matter if you were in America, Africa, Asia, or wherever, you had a pandemic story.
June 30, Quarantine in Queens, Day 471. Neil, to Sophia at 7AM in the morning at breakfast: "This has always been our biggest problem. We need to talk more about our inner emotions, to understand each other deeply, to express what's really in our hearts!" Sophia: "zzzz." Actually, Sophia has been having trouble sleeping at night, and I'm a little concerned. She's tried everything from listening to nature sounds to giving up Diet Coke.
You have done work for Disney and HBO. What is it that you do for big production companies like that?
I haven’t worked for them for a few years now, but when I did, it was in the writing and development of projects.
In general regarding your photography, where do you find your inspiration to create?
I feel that I am a storyteller. I always loved stories. Even reading stories as a child. And photography is a great way to tell stories. At the same time, I do feel that photography can be limited in what it can express. That’s why I usually include text with the photo, which I think are equally as important. I don’t feel that it is “cheating” but a way to tell a fuller picture of myself.
What we say, what we do, and what we think can all be different, even when confronted with the same situation, and I like to show the contrast between what I show and what I think.
June 10, Quarantine in Queens, Day 451. OK, we made it through the first hurdle of meeting friends outside, but what happens when it is ninety degrees outside? It feels like a heatwave in NYC... in June. Climate change, anyone? Should my mother now meet friends inside a restaurant and take the mask off? It might be less healthy for her to sit outside in the heat. Some people can never get a break.
Do you have any favourite artists/photographers?
Photographers I love: Diane Arbus, Nan Goldin, and Richard Avedon. Currently, I am inspired by the humor of Martin Parr and the intimacy of Elinor Carucci.
When you take pictures, do you usually have a concept in mind of what you want to shoot, or do you let the images just "come to you", or is it both? Please describe your process. (What camera/s do you use? Do you have a preferred lens/focal length?)
For this project, I usually start with something that happened to me personally that day, and the photo and text becomes a visual diary of that day. The image usually comes first, and then the text expands on it.
I use a crop sensor Sony 6400. Nothing fancy. And because so many photos have been in my super-dark apartment, I've gotten much more skilled in using my inexpensive Godox speed lights. I've also started to tether my photos to my laptop because it allows me to be in my own photos. And because the interiors are so small, I've tended to use a Sigma 16mm wide angle lens for almost all of the interior shots, a lens I rarely used before.
April 19, Quarantine in Queens, Day 399. This morning, there was an opinion piece in the NY Times arguing that too many vaccinated people are harboring irrational fears about Covid when the risks are now low. But Sophia and I still think it is too early to dismiss the dangers of the variants. "Mom, let me bring something up." I said to her this morning. "If things got bad again, would it be OK with you if we all stayed together in this apartment for another year?" "Of course! I would love it," said my mother, beaming with joy. "There is nothing more important than family, and the way we care for each other. Now how about I make both of you some pancakes for breakfast?"
Where do you hope to see yourself in five years? Are there any special projects you are currently working on other than the quarantine project that you would like to let everyone know about?
Oh, boy. It has been such a weird year and a half. It is hard to know what I’m doing next month. I’ve had some offers from publishers to make Quarantine in Queens into a book, but since I’m still working on it, even after 500 days of posts, I’ve been procrastinating. I’ll also be showing some of my work at international festivals during the fall and winter. I’d like to move on to other projects, but this pandemic just won’t end, will it?
“When I am not out photographing, I (like to)…
Eat in restaurants, explore the city, go to museums, watch movies, go to the theater, travel. Almost everything that has been hard to do the last year and a half. Hopefully, we’ll all get vaccinated and we can move on to normal life again soon."
Thank you Neil!
All photos © Neil Kramer
You can see more photos from Neil´s series on his website.