Business came to a halt for Austin photographers Chris Lammert and Keelyn Costello a few weeks ago.
Lammert, 32, shoots for Zilker Bark, a website dedicated to dog portraits, and Costello, 24, focuses on fashion and events, and all their gigs dried up when the city asked residents to shelter in place to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The friends, who are roommates in Travis Heights, started taking walks to decompress.
"We felt really inspired by our neighborhood walks," says Costello, who is originally from Lake Jackson. "We kept seeing people on their front porches and thought that it would be interesting to capture these families during this time and give them something to look back and remember."
Lammert, a native Austinite, says he’d always admired Costello’s work, and they’d been trying to find a way to work together. "With most of our appointments canceled, we were both looking to fill our time with something purposeful and useful," he says. "But it’s taken on a whole new life."
Photographers around the country have been taking and posting similar photos using Instagram hashtags including #thefrontstepsproject and #frontporchproject.
This Austin photo duo came up with a name — FrontPortraits — and put together a website with a scheduler tool. They published a single post on NextDoor about offering to take photos in Travis Heights. "We anticipated it as a neighborhood project," he says, but word started to spread. "We had availability open for the entire month, and we didn’t think we’d book up that much," he says. Within a few days, all 300 sessions were booked.
They hadn’t factored in geographic distance between the appointments, so they started rescheduling portraits according to neighborhoods. With nearly all out-of-the-house activities canceled, "their schedules are pretty open," he says.
Now that they have ironed out the process, Costello and Lammert shoot about a dozen portraits a day, half in the morning and half in the evening, while spending the afternoons and evenings editing and refining the schedule. "Our nights have changed from watching Netflix to scheduling," Costello says.
Using a 70-200 zoom lens, Costello and Lammert shoot from the street, giving instructions for the people in the photo about how and where exactly to stand. Most subjects stand on their porch or by the front door. The portraits themselves take only five to 10 minutes to shoot.
"I get particularly excited when there’s a dog on the schedule," Lammert says. "Having a dog or a pet in the photo typically adds a lot of emotionality. It’s a weird time for pets as well."
Portraiture, even before the advent of photography, has always existed to document a person or a group of people in a certain time and place, and Costello says there’s value in capturing these moments, even during times of trouble.
Costello says she was expecting this to be an emotional project, but what she’s learned is that "you can’t fully imagine what everyone is going through."
When people sign up for a portrait online, there’s a form with a few questions about how the coronavirus is affecting their family, how the Austin community is supporting them or how they are giving back. "When we got that first group of stories, I was bawling," Costello says.
"People wrote paragraphs about their lives, pouring their heart into this anonymous online form," Lammert says. "Everything is relative and every situation is relative, but they have a common thread."
You can see some of this shared experience in the images. Unlike a traditional family portrait, when families coordinate outfits or spend lots of time on hair, makeup and appearance, these family portraits feel more natural and laid back. Subjects usually wear whatever clothes they are wearing at home, and their faces often display the conflicting emotions that come from living through such an unprecedented experience. A viewer can sense the fatigue and uncertainty, but also connection and gratitude.
One photo in particular shows this confluence of emotions, Costello says. Late last month, they got a request for a portrait from the Jordan family, whose dad and husband, James, is a U.S. Air Force health care administrator who had been called for deployment to help with the COVID-19 crisis. He was scheduled to leave the next day.
"We were completely booked, but we knew we had to go shoot that family," she says. "We tried to elicit smiles and happiness, but seeing the look on the kids’ faces five minutes before he had to leave, the emotions are just so raw."
James’ wife, Casey, says he had been able to work from home for three weeks, but the day after he got orders to go to San Antonio and then North Carolina for work, she read about FrontPortraits online and reached out.
"Everyone was excited to have the pictures taken," she says, "but it was a little bittersweet, knowing he was about to leave for six months. It felt like a little tiny bit of ’normal’ life for a few minutes, and I was really glad we’d have this documentation of such a strange moment in our life."
Jordan says they were able to get one of the last slots of the day, and her husband left immediately after the shoot.
Even though their own photography businesses are taking a financial hit, Lammert and Costello say they knew from the beginning that they wanted to give away these portraits for free.
"We wanted to give them the session and the portrait as something for them to mark this moment and to cherish after this is over," Lammert says. "And besides, gas is at an all-time low, so we’re saving money on that."
The FrontPortrait photographers say they have bookings through mid-May and will likely continue the project after that, opening more appointments as they can. They have started publishing some of the stories behind the photos on their website, frontportraits.com.
Both Lammert and Costello say that even though they are giving away photos, they are receiving their own priceless gift: a creative project that has a sense of purpose. "That’s what fuels us," he says.