An essay by Brian Ferrari, NYC photographer and blogger.
For most of my adult life I have held a day job while exploring creative endeavors in my free time. With the exception of some occasional theatre work, these have been solitary undertakings. For 10 years I produced and hosted a public access television program on Manhattan Neighborhood Network, which was followed by 5 years producing and hosting a weekly radio program on East Village Radio. Writing, photography, blogging… I am used to working alone.
To give a little context to my whole pandemic experience, I have to back up 6 months prior. In September, 2019 I was let go from my Executive Assistant position at a humanitarian organization due to budgetary cut-backs. I spent the next six months at home in Queens, applying for new positions and only venturing into Manhattan for job interviews. I had no idea that I was ahead of the curve with isolating at home.
I applied for hundreds of jobs. I lost count of the number of “near-misses” and “runner-up” situations that I encountered. As with previous job searches, I always vow to write a piece highlighting the absurd exchanges and encounters of this soul-crushing experience.
Finally, just as my weekly unemployment payments were about to run out, I was hired in the president’s office of a university in downtown Manhattan. My start date was March 9th, 2020. By the end of that week, the city was starting to shut down due to the pandemic. At home, my partner was laid off from his chef position at a high-end restaurant. His nephew that lives with us was let go from his movie theatre management position as well. By the end of the week, we had all switched places – I was now the only one in the house with a job.
In Manhattan, normally bustling streets were eerily quiet and empty. I knew it was an unprecedented time that needed to be documented. I felt a responsibility to take photos. At some point during that week as I was walking around downtown, it occurred to me that I was doing the same thing I had done back in the mid-80’s when I was a high school photography student from Westbury, Long Island.
I loved New York City and wanted to photograph it. However, I did not necessarily want to photograph the PEOPLE of New York. To avoid any confrontations with unwilling subjects, I would come into the city on sleepy Sunday afternoons; focusing my camera on building details and deserted downtown streets. Over 30 years later, I felt like I had come full circle. Unfortunately, this feeling of finality only added to the anxiety of those early days of the pandemic.
I commuted to the office exactly 8 days before we were permitted to start working remotely. It was just long enough for me to contract COVID. Thankfully, it was a mild case but certainly not anything I want to go through again.
As we all hunkered down in our homes, many people would comment that this was the PERFECT time to write that book! Paint! Clear out clutter! Be creative! Think of all the free time you have now!
As I mentioned, I had already been home for six months before the lockdown. When it comes to my creative life, I know how I work. And how I don’t work. Regardless of whether I am incredibly busy or terribly bored, procrastination is my worst enemy. I can blame obstacles that keep me from completing a project, but often when that path is cleared, the inertia remains. That magic switch to get the creative juices flowing does not automatically flip on, even in the best of times.
It’s an easy trap to fall into – beating yourself up for not pushing out tons of new work at a time like this. We do ourselves a disservice if we do not take into account that the elevated stress of the pandemic – not to mention the other events of 2020 – heightened our anxiety. It wasn’t exactly a serene year conducive to creativity.
I have a blog piece that I started to write about musician / producer / songwriter Adam Schlesinger, who died of COVID last April. He was a key member of Fountains of Wayne and Ivy – two of my favorite bands. This tribute that I have nearly completed has been sitting in my draft folder for over a year now. What stops me from even opening the document to give it a final edit? Perhaps it was all just a little too close to home. He was a fellow New Yorker and only a year older than me. And I was laying in my own sickbed when he died. I just have not been able to go back to it.
Last spring and summer when my partner and I would sometimes venture outside just once a day to walk the dogs, I began to take pictures of flowers. One of the positive aspects of the shutdown was a decrease in air pollution. The flowers in my neighborhood were more vibrant than I had ever seen. I wondered if maybe I just had not previously taken the time to literally stop and smell the roses. But when I would lower my mask outdoors and breathe in fresh air reminiscent of the Appalachian Mountains, I knew it was not my imagination.
My photographic posts are more likely to bypass the procrastination obstacle, especially when there is an urgency to record a specific moment in time, such as life during the pandemic or returning to work in an empty Manhattan. Whether or not these posts find an audience in the moment or serve as a future document of life in 2020, at least I have put them out there. I feel like I have done my part.
To be fair, posts that require more research – my series on Madame Spivy and the profiles of George Platt Lynes’ models are a couple of examples – have benefitted from this extra time at home, allowing me to delve into the background material and bring their stories to light.
I have a favorite quote from David Rakoff posted on my refrigerator:
The only thing that makes one an artist is making art. And that requires the precise opposite of hanging out; a deeply lonely and unglamorous task of tolerating oneself long enough to push something out.
No matter the circumstances, we must push on through.
Brian Ferrari is a photographer and blogger, based in New York City. Visit his exciting blog “Writing and Rambling in NYC” here:
From his blog:
“Brian started his blog in 2016. Previously, he was the producer/host of the MNN television program Bri-Guy’s Media Surf, which aired on Manhattan Neighborhood Network (1997-2007). The show was also featured in the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History at the Leslie Lohman Foundation and is currently being archived for inclusion in the Fales Collection at NYU Library.
“For 5 years, Brian also produced and hosted 60 Degrees, a weekly radio program focusing on female singers and girl groups of the 1960s on eastvillageradio.com”.