There are lots of ways to describe our current state of being: stressful, confusing, enlightening, dizzying, infuriating. I would advise anyone who is struggling to see the best in their situation right now to consider Neil Kramer’s current setup — the TV writer and photographer has been locked in a two-bedroom apartment with his elderly mother and ex-wife for nine months and counting. (Remember when we used to count the days? Cute.)
Over the course of the last nine worrisome months, Kramer started a project featuring his ex-wife, Sophia, and his 86-year-old mother, Elaine. The photographs capture glimpses into a surreal absurdity that has become Kramer’s daily routine, and in a way that will feel familiar to many of us. Most of us could have never imagined anything like the current state of affairs at the very beginning of this year, and sometimes it's easier to hope it just goes away than to really consider our surroundings.
But Kramer? He's considering his. Right before the pandemic, Kramer’s mother (who usually “spends winters in Boca Raton, like Seinfeld”) decided to stay in New York. Then his ex-wife, Sophia, with whom Kramer is still friends, had a plumbing disaster and had to move immediately. She put everything in storage and decided to hang out in New York for a month. “It was supposed to be a short-term arrangement, and now we've been like this for almost a year,” he said.
“The project has made our situation a lot better. Rather than playing Uno, now we have something to do. It's taught me a lot about collaboration.”
Both Kramer and his ex-wife freelance from home, Kramer as a writer and Sophia with translation and interpreting. Their work has been cut drastically because of the pandemic. With too much time on their hands, Kramer said that “like semi-retired Golden Girls, we have become obsessed with the mundane and the domestic. I never realized how much work it is to keep the house clean and organized. We have settled into roles involving the domestic, with Sophia doing most of the cooking, I'm doing most of the shopping and cleaning, and my mother helps us remember what day it is.”
Working together on this project has helped them deal with the tension. “As an artist, your art helps you with your demons. And that works as a collective, our demons, also. There's one shot where Sophia and I are on the floor ‘fighting,’ and that was based on the day before having a real (not physical) fight. If we were in family therapy, we would have talked it through. Now, we discuss it like, ‘OK, this happened. How do we express it visually?’ In some ways, this has been incredibly stressful, and the photography has been more of a form of therapy than a project for other people.”
When Kramer took photographs pre-pandemic, it had been mostly street photography and portraiture. “In photography, you have to be more of an observer. There was so much to DO here in lockdown — scrubbing off the groceries, etc., and I was so busy doing it I couldn't take a photo of it. So I suggested the next day, we'll just reproduce it. The story has to be honest, it has to have really happened, and then for the photography I set up lights and tethered myself in the picture like a film shoot, and it became a more theatrical production.”
The two women have become creative collaborators as well as characters in the images. “Once you’re working continuously with other people, the subject is as important as the photographer. Now, we look through every shot and talk about which one we like better. My ex-wife and mother are becoming like actresses — we joke about them starting a union and giving me a rider for red M&M’s in a bowl. When people started to see the project more, the two of them started to become more involved, and I had to learn to accept that as a form of collaboration.”
While the trio started taking images daily, Kramer, Sophia, and Elaine are down to shooting now about twice a week. Kramer estimates he has about 100 shots from the last nine months of the three of them together. “Quite honestly, all of us can be cranky during the week because of this damn pandemic, and there are days I suggest we do a shot, and the others say, ‘No f***ing way.’ I need them more than they need me, so I have learned to cater to their needs and time. I owe them so much for being good sports.”
“I feel like the pandemic has become a genre of photography on its own, and I've made friends around the world, with people in Iran and Istanbul who are also taking pictures of their family under lockdown,” Kramer said. “I’m touched by seeing other people's lives. This project won a competition in the beginning of this underneath the family section — and that made us proud. We're not a mom and a dad and two kids. We're a man, his ex-wife, and his mother, but we are a family and that's what we get out of it. We'll probably keep shooting until there's a vaccine or one of us leaves.”