Covid-19 / Arts


A photographic exhibition at the Counihan Gallery portrays another, more optimistic, aspect of lockdown

Mark Phillips
Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Alana Holmberg says this is her favourite of the dozens of photos she took which are featured in the Porch Diaries exhibition. Photo: Alana Holmberg.

ALANA Holmberg has found herself back in a familiar place in recent days.

During Melbourne’s two Covid-19 lockdowns in 2020, the Brunswick photographer would set up most days in a sunny spot on the front porch of her terrace house near Anstey Station and take pictures of people who passed by her gate. She ended up with photos of 208 people.

With the city again in lockdown since May 28, Holmberg has returned to the porch with her camera.

In the ultimate twist of irony, Porch Stories, an exhibition of the photos she took in 2020 had been scheduled to open at the Counihan Gallery in Sydney Road on May 29.

In the days leading up to the opening, Holmberg had kept one eye on the news of a growing Covid-19 outbreak as she arranged the hanging of the 66 photos.

But just as the finishing touches were put together on Thursday, May 27, acting Premier James Merlino plunged Victoria into a new seven day lockdown, the fourth in a little over 12 months.

Fortunately, the Porch Diaries exhibition show runs throughout June until July 11 so all is not lost. And with a book of the series also in production, there may even be a silver lining.

“I kind of chuckled, honestly,” Holmberg says of the timing of the new lockdown, which has since been extended to 14 days.

“It’s just ironic that my lockdown project is again thwarted by lockdown. But I suppose the silver lining of it is that that it now has extra relevance.

“One concern I had with exhibiting the work in May was maybe people would be a bit tired of thinking about lockdown and wouldn’t want to go back there to revisit it in their mind. But I suppose with the fourth lockdown it again feels as if the project has become more relevant and less in the past than it was.”

Accidental beginning

Holmberg is an award-winning documentary photographer whose work has been published and exhibited in Australia and internationally. Her photographs have appeared in The New York Times, Time magazine and The Guardian, and she won the 2019 National Photographic Portrait Prize with a photo of her pregnant sister.

Porch Diaries is her first solo exhibition and her first in her adopted home suburb.

The project began almost accidentally when, fearing she may have been exposed to coronavirus, Holmberg was forced to self-quarantine at home for a period overlapping her birthday in March (she was eventually given the all clear with no infection). To keep herself amused, she took a few photos of people who stopped by to drop off food or to say hello over her front fence, and by the time she was out of quarantine, all of Melbourne was in lockdown.

Holmberg had no intention to produce a book or exhibition when she began taking the photographs, and it was not until The Washington Post published a gallery of them in April that she realised the images — whimsical, lighthearted and often candid — had potential to tell a story about how community and connection could serve as a remedy to the stresses and strains of lockdown.

“I was looking at ways to creatively respond [to lockdown] and this project just felt quite organic,” she says.

“And when I showed people there was an instant connection and recognition with it, so that alone was like ‘I think I’m onto something’.

“I’ve seen a lot of people photograph inside the home, doing all the moody self-portraits and objects around the home, and then I’d seen my colleagues in the photojournalist world going out and shooting through glass windows and in empty streets and all of that kind of thing but I thought I’d landed on something unique.”

Alana Holmberg on the porch of the house where she took the photos.

“The work is a celebration in a way. It doesn’t focus on the difficulties of lockdown but focuses on the more positive aspects I observed which was an experience of connection and belonging in my physical neighbourhood.”

As the lockdown stretched on through autumn in 2020, the outgoing Holmberg became a kind of local celebrity with visitors turning up at her front gate unannounced to have their photo taken by the woman on the porch

“I would just sit there for hours on end and have tea and lunch out there and people just got very used to me sitting there and a lot of people would pass by intentionally and say hello because I think they were missing that kind of interaction at the time,” she says.

“Over time I got to know so many people in the street and workers and people who would pass us by every day … and I would mostly just call out to people across the street or keep an eye out for people holding something interesting and you would get a sense of someone who was interested in having a chat.

“I would invite them to participate and over time once I had a few portraits under my belt and could show them different things, people were really happy to be involved.

“And then crews like the Brunswick Good Karma Network [a Facebook group] got a hold of it and people would proactively come around and send messages on Facebook [saying] ‘Where are you I’m coming around’. So that was pretty funny for a period there feeling I actually had to be out there because people were dropping by without much warning.”

Celebration of community

For Holmberg, who grew up in Kerang in northern Victoria, lockdown was the first time she had experienced a real sense of community since moving to Brunswick six years ago.

“The work is a celebration in a way,” she says. “It doesn’t focus on the difficulties of lockdown but focuses on the more positive aspects I observed which was an experience of connection and belonging in my physical neighbourhood which was something new for me.

“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced that living in the city … I know that feeling from the country but I can’t say I had it in Melbourne until lockdown.”

The exhibition will continue until July 11 at the Counihan Gallery and, Covid willing, Holmberg will deliver an artist’s talk about her work on Saturday, June 19.

Separately, she hopes to publish a selection of 50 of the photos in a coffee table book later this year. She is currently crowdfunding through Pozible to raise $6000 towards the production of the book. Any profits above the fundraising target will be split 50–50 with the Brunswick-based Piano Project charity, which provides music education to refugee and disadvantaged children.

Most of all, Holmberg hopes the Porch Stories project leaves its audience with a sense of hope in grim times.

“Lockdown was the context of the work but the themes of it extend well beyond lockdown.

“It’s about where do you find connection and what’s available to you off your screen and beyond your existing social networks.

“It’s a kind of old fashioned idea but something I’ve been thinking about a lot.”

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