When the British public were asked by PM Boris Johnson to “Stay at home”, it affected some sections of the population more than others. Discover analogue photographer, Kieran Doherty’s deep-seated series that looks back at lockdown, documenting the unforgiving isolation of his elderly parents. The resulting images were shot on a vintage Leica lllf, a Leica M4-2, a Leica M6 and rolls of expired film, then processed in a self-built darkroom.
Kieran says, “With no work as a photojournalist on the horizon, I entered the support bubble of my parents, Hugh and Isobel, to care for my father during the first lockdown in 2020, until now. Housebound and shielding, as both are classified as medically vulnerable, this essay was photographed against a coronavirus induced societal backdrop where in certain quarters the elderly were deemed expendable. This series attempts to chronicle the lives of two recently turned octogenarians of the Silent Generation and show how they coped with the highs, lows, fears and loneliness of a modern-day pandemic.”
We caught up with Kieran to discover more about this series and his film photography processes. Read on to hear more…
You mentioned the highs and lows of lockdown, which you have captured so beautifully. Could you tell us bit more about these highs and lows and the process of how you captured such emotion?
The lockdowns, particularly the first one in March 2020, was such a surreal time for everyone. We were all trying to process what the pandemic was and what it would mean for life in general. The daily exponential rises in Coronavirus deaths, the NHS trying to take the strain, panic buying, the political leadership effectively winging it… it was a very worrying time. Then, the country witnessed the tragedy of what happened to those living and working in the elderly care home sector.
During lockdown, this non-stop avalanche of news was all channelled through the tv and radio in my parent’s kitchen – housebound was how they spent most of their time. The lowest points were when a family member and a close friend passed away – my parents watched the funerals via zoom. Then, my father’s health happened to start deteriorating quite rapidly and the pandemic made it impossible for him to seek hands-on medical help. However, my parents are from a generation that just gets on with whatever situation they find themselves in. And so, the highs were generated through visits from grandchildren. They would come and peer in through downstairs windows or hover outside and have conversations from about twenty feet away. Another high, particularly for my mother, was when she received her first vaccination – this was a huge psychological turning point for her.
I became part of their support bubble, even though I was still living in my own home just a few streets away. And that’s how this series began. During the process, I realised that I was missing moments worth capturing because I had left the camera upstairs or in another room, and so in the end, I had to constantly have it attached to either my wrist or around my body. This was the only way to capture those fleeting moments, those emotional moments.
You mentioned the decline in photojournalism work during lockdown… Did this series enable you to stay creative? How does photography have a positive impact on your life and your health?
As a result of the pandemic, my commercial work literally disappeared overnight. To be honest, it still hasn’t recovered. Whether it was through taking pictures, cooking, painting watercolours, playing live music, or repairing vintage Leica cameras, I had to occupy myself creatively. And so yes, this is directly linked to how I maintained my mental health. If something you love doing is suddenly taken away from you indefinitely, it’s going to have a sizeably negative impact. I was looking for ways to combat this and redress the imbalance. Outside of my family, photography is the single biggest passion I have, so I had no choice but to find a way to keep using my camera.
Why did you choose to document this series on film? And can you tell us a bit more about your self-made darkroom?
Well, the pandemic gave me more time. When I took the decision to document my own daily life and that of my parents, I had no intention of using my digital cameras for several reasons…
We live in a world now where everyone demands instant image gratification. And with so much time on my hands, I wanted and needed the whole process to take as long as possible. Using my analogue cameras, particularly the Leica IIIF, meant everything was slowed down. I would wait for the moment and capture it, instead of hitting the shutter button continuously and hoping for the best. I also had boxes of expired 35mm black-and-white film, some Ilford HP3 from as early as 1973, lying around in my office. I think film emulsion has a character and soul that digital does not have. The grain on every roll of film was different, and I had no problem with that. I surmised that these pictures were only ever going to be seen by my family, as a historical document of our life during the pandemic, so it didn’t really matter to me what they looked like.
I started to work out preferred chemicals and temperatures for developing certain film stocks. And that’s when I realised, I needed my own darkroom. I already had the perfect windowless space, complete with heating and plumbing in a large tool storage cupboard annexed to a summer house at the bottom of the garden. I sourced everything online, including a Leitz Focomat enlarger, a six-foot fibre glass sink, developing trays, vintage red lights and even expired photographic paper. It took me a month to complete the build… I use it all the time now.
The Leica lllf was produced in the late 50s, inspired by Oskar Barnack’s original Ur-Leica prototype in 1914. How do you find it working with such a vintage masterpiece?
The Leica IIIF is by far my favourite. However, the camera did have a serious shutter lag problem, and I couldn’t send it away because of lockdown. So, I watched a YouTube video and took the camera apart myself to tighten and lubricate the shutter curtain. Fortunately, it all went back together in one piece! The 50mm has always been my go-to lens, so the fold away 5cm Elmar meant that the camera could sit in the palm of my hand. There is a certain poetry to using this camera that I don’t experience with any other camera. It teaches you to pick your moment. There are no second chances. The slow wind on mechanism doesn’t allow for a second shot at a missed moment.
And what about the Leica M4-2 and Leica M6? If you had to choose, which is your favourite?
Certain situations requiring a rapid film change would mean I would use either my M4-2 or my M6. Both these cameras are incomparable. But if I had to choose one, it would be the M4-2 as it was the first Leica camera I ever bought.
Do you have any plans for the future?
I’m going to continue with this story, as it still has a way to run yet. I have plans to turn an exhibition space into a huge darkroom for people to view the work in the same way I experienced making it, but that is a whole other conversation! Throughout my career I have found that the personal stories, the ones that aren’t commissioned, end up being the work I am most proud of.
Follow Kieran on Instagram here.
Or discover more of his work on his website.