“If we’re ever going to get on the roof, this is the perfect time for it,” Jamie Harmon recounts a story from one of the 15-minute portrait sessions for his Memphis Quarantine project. Over two thousand participants posed through windows, sat on porches, paused at doorways. Some smushed faces up against the glass, holding pets and loved ones. Others hung out of open windows or just went about their business while a camera rose, 10 feet away. Most all laughed about the oddity of the circumstances. The result is an intimate record of life during a time when no one knew what was going on. Harmon makes the collective anxiety look beautiful.
Jamie Harmon has decades of photography experience, documenting found objects and people through film and digital media. His works have been featured in the New York Times and CBS News. But most Memphians recognize Harmon from his Amurica photo ‘booth,’ a 1950s camper turned photo studio. The camper is filled with bright lights, kitschy props and whimsical costumes. People pile into the camper, play around, act silly and story tell. It’s like being in an imagination machine, and Harmon is clicking away, capturing human emotion and experience.
Things changed in March of 2020. Harmon was stuck at home and admits being “motivated by the fear of actually being stuck at home.” The project officially started March 13, 2020. After contacting a few friends to document the “two weeks,” a few pictures hit social media. Harmon figured he could still take portraits from a distance, carrying just a camera, no lights or anything special. And then he was booked solid with requests.
From March 13 through May 31, 2020, he photographed over 800 dwellings and thousands of people. Most sessions were 15 minutes. Leah Keys, his business partner and wife, ran the daily logistics operation across the greater Memphis area. He crisscrossed town breaking up a lot of monotony and bringing joy to the collective home bound. Still, in so much uncertainty, the experience changed Harmon. “I collected these short visits, small interactions into a composite,” Harmon observed. “And all of these conversations became a weird collection of consciousness. It made me accept the future, to the point where it didn’t bother me.”
The project was free for participants. Some donated, but they wanted to keep the project equitable. He shot across zip codes, income brackets and ways of life. A diverse representation of Memphis - experiencing something so universal.
Harmon and Keys are turning this time capsule of house calls and portraiture into a book, Memphis Quarantine. The images will first make a stop at the Crosstown Arts galleries. The book and exhibit contain over 800 images from the portrait series, with each stop represented. To pre-order a book, visit MemphisQuarantine.com
The exhibition at Crosstown Arts Galleries will be on view through April 10. CrosstownArts.org.