Towering clouds, endless skies and the geometry of a deserted city: ever since Chicago went into lockdown on March 21, 2020, Craig Semetko has been keeping a visual diary composed of serene, almost meditative scenes. In our interview, the photographer talks about how he is coping with the government-induced isolation, how he maintains a positive outlook, and why the view from his apartment has come to play a vital role in his work.
You are sheltering in place in Chicago, Illinois. You previously mentioned that Illinois has the 4th-highest number of confirmed Covid-19 cases out of all 50 states. How are you experiencing this situation? Do you feel anxious about potentially being exposed to the virus?
Thank goodness I’m healthy right now, and I feel very good. Since we last spoke, Illinois has moved up a spot and currently has the third-highest number of cases in the US. It certainly gives you pause. Am I worried? Well, I had severe pneumonia a few years ago, which scarred one of my lungs pretty badly. So I suppose that makes me one of those folks with an ‘underlying condition’, putting me at higher risk of a…not so good outcome. So I’m really trying to avoid getting the virus. Some might call that fearful. I prefer the term ‘overly cautious’ (laughs).
Since the start of the lockdown on March 21, you have barely left your home. As someone who is used to being out and about on a daily basis, how are you coping with this new situation? Do you have a routine in place that you find helpful?
I’ve never been one for structure, both to my advantage and my detriment. And this lockdown has disrupted whatever structure I had before. I have fallen into a basic routine, however. I wake up around 5.15 a.m. and wait to see what kind of sunrise it’s going to be. Depending on how it looks, I’ll either photograph for a while or go back to bed. I meditate, make coffee, make breakfast, download files and edit them, watch the news… all the while I’m glancing out the window to see if anything interesting is happening. In the afternoon the light gets better and I pay closer attention. And throughout the day I’m often on FaceTime with family or friends. In many ways it’s not that different from my normal life, except that I’m shooting from inside instead of outdoors.
You originally started out as a comedy writer and performer. Which of these skills did you transfer to your work as a street photographer?
In order to write or act well, especially in comedy, you have to be very observant. ‘People watching’ has been one of my favourite pastimes ever since I was a kid. If you watch people long enough, you can begin to anticipate their behaviour. That’s a perfect starting point for creating characters in writing and acting. It’s also immensely helpful in street photography. Fundamentally, street photography is about observing people and anticipating their behaviour. I had 39 years of practice before I bought my first camera, so the jump from writing and acting to street photography was not that big of a leap.
Have any of these skills perhaps also proved helpful in handling the lockdown?
A sense of humour is not a skill as such, but it’s definitely a huge help in dealing with the everyday stresses of this pandemic. That doesn’t mean I’m running around making Covid-19 jokes, it just means a sense of humour can give you perspective when things appear to be tough, but actually aren’t. If you can remind yourself that running out of peanut butter isn’t really the end of the world, you’ll be fine.
In these current circumstances, do you still think of yourself as a ‘street’ photographer?
That’s an interesting question. Despite the fact that I’m not taking pictures out in the street, I’m still using my street photography skills – in this case, to be a landscape photographer. Usually, I observe people interacting with each other, and look for that precise moment when the drama culminates – Cartier-Bresson called it ‘the decisive moment’. For me, it has always had more to do with a dramatic moment between people, rather than with light and shadow. Now, however, when I look out of my window, the light and shadow are the moment. I will wait for that split-second when the dark clouds part and the bright disc of the sun shines through. It’s there for an instant, and then it’s gone. It’s no different from anticipating, say, a couple kissing in the street. You wait, you observe, and you pounce when the moment reveals itself. I’m actually finding that the challenges of making a good street photograph and a good landscape photograph are remarkably similar.
Does this feel a little like being on a temporary break from your ‘designated’ genre?
I’ve never been comfortable with the categorisation of street photographer. It’s limiting, but I understand it’s a shorthand term that helps people get an instant, overall idea of what I do. But one of my favorite photographs from this series is of toilet paper in a chair. Does that make me a toilet paper photographer? I also staged a photo of my silhouette with an umbrella. My first two books have the word unposed in their titles for a reason… I’ve never staged photographs before. But this lockdown has forced me to try new things. On my Instagram account I refer to myself as ‘a guy with a camera’. I think that covers whatever I happen to be into at any given moment. Having said that, I don’t feel like I’ve necessarily paused my street photography – I’m just using the same tools on a different construction site.
Which aspects of this situation do you find most difficult to deal with? Do you ever find yourself using humour as a coping mechanism?
The greatest challenge is watching the news. It’s terrible to see the suffering – physically, mentally, emotionally and economically – that people are going through all over the world. It helps to turn off the TV and read a book, or listen to music. But I have close friends that have been severely impacted by the consequences of the pandemic, so it’s hard to find any humour in what’s happening, to be honest.
Your apartment overlooks Lake Michigan, and you have captured many stunning images of its waters straight from your window. How has your relationship with the lake changed over the past weeks?
Up until recently, it has always just been ‘the Lake’. I never truly ‘saw’ it until I was locked down with nothing to do but look at it. I have now become aware of just how much the lake changes all the time. One day it might be smooth as glass with a greenish colour, the next day it might be violently rough, throwing waves onto Lake Shore Drive and roiling the lakebed to turn the water brown. Some days there’s not a cloud in the sky. Then a storm appears, with dark clouds so foreboding you expect the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to gallop out of them any minute. The lake puts on a show every day. Some days are more colourful than others.
For many of us, the lockdown has inspired a new connection with nature. But can a spectacle of clouds compete with the human antics, dramas and idiosyncrasies that unfold on a bustling street? Don’t you miss these moments?
Yes, I do, but I’m also excited to embrace something so different. I never thought I’d be a landscape photographer, and I may not continue to be one when the lockdown is over. But right now I’m enjoying it. You’re right, it’s hard to beat everyday people doing strange and ridiculous things in the street, but don’t underestimate the entertainment value of clouds. The other morning I saw a big, puffy, orange one that looked remarkably like Donald Trump eating a Whopper with fries.
Would you say that photography is something you feel compelled to do – perhaps even something that helps you get through these strange times? After all, you could simply take a break and use the lockdown to read books or learn a new language.
Photography has always been simultaneously a challenge and a meditation for me. Few things in life generate a concentration so intense that you lose track of time; for me, taking pictures is one of them. When I’m absorbed in my work, I even forget to eat – which, if you know me, is really saying something. I am also reading books, watching classic films, and I’m actually learning Italian online – or trying to, at least. But photographing throughout this pandemic has forced me to look at the world from eight stories up instead of street level, and that has been both challenging and rewarding. It’s definitely helping me get through this period. And it makes me curious about what happens next.
What equipment did you choose for this series, and how did it perform?
I worked with a Leica SL2 with a Vario-Elmarit SL 24-90 ASPH and an APO-Vario-Elmarit SL 90-280, as well as a Leica M10-P with a Summilux-M 35mm f/1.4 ASPH and a Summicron-M 28mm f/2.0 ASPH. Both cameras and all lenses performed flawlessly. I’ve been using M cameras forever, but the SL2 is still somewhat unfamiliar, and the 90-280 focal length is completely new to me. The majority of photos in this series were taken with the SL and both zooms. When shooting out the window of my apartment, it would be difficult to get what I need with anything shorter than, say, 75mm.
Craig Semetko (born 1961) is an American photographer based in Los Angeles and Chicago. Known for his humorous photos, Semetko was a comedy writer and performer for many years before discovering photography in 2000. His first book, Unposed, was published in 2009 with a foreword by Elliott Erwitt. This was followed by the monograph, India Unposed, followed in 2014. Semetko also contributed to the recent Leica Akademie book Inspiration. A graduate of Northwestern University, Semetko teaches workshops worldwide. His prints can be found in collections in Europe, Asia, and the United States. Find out more about his photography on his website and Instagram.