Provence-Based Photographer Jamie Beck Created 59 Pieces of Art During Her Time in Isolation
She styled and executed 59 photographs, one for each day of her confinement. Here, her best advice for staying creative while in quarantine. Plus, she shares the reason why she's making one more piece after stay-at-home restrictions in France lift today.
When the coronavirus pandemic reached American photographer Jamie Beck's small, sleepy village in Provence, where she lives with her husband, Kevin, and young daughter, Eloise, her entire world—and her vocation—came to a screeching halt. She lost every single commercial photography booking she'd already made for the year; an unfurling New York City exhibition, one she'd invested extensively in, was cancelled. "The feeling of panic shook me to my core—and I hated it. I thought, I have to take the power back," she tells Martha Stewart Living. So, Beck did what she does best: She got to work.
"I came down the stairs and told my husband, 'I'm going to make one piece of art a day for every day we are in lockdown, I'm going to call it #IsolationCreation, and I'm going to ask others to join me,'" she continues. The resulting project—a series of styled florals, sweeping views of Provence from her apartment window, portraits of her family, sometimes masked, cloaked in linen—told the story of Beck's isolation and the creative bedrock underneath it. "I wanted to capture this moment in time, make it tangible and inspiring," she says, adding that she also wanted to share her experience with others. To do so, she and her husband—who has been her creative partner for over a decade—began translating her artwork onto posters. "It hit me: Let's make accessible art posters at $50 each and give 10% of the proceeds to the Foundation of Contemporary Arts Emergency COVID Relief Fund for other artists affected," she says.
Her posters, printed on thick, museum-quality paper, are visually beautiful, but they strike a chord beyond aesthetics: one that sings of both an individual and shared human experience. "In 50 years from now, the series will tell a story of a very specific moment in our history. These were the flowers in the garden, the food that we ate, the life of a small family in the middle of unprecedented circumstances," shares Beck. This is also why, she believes, the project has resonated so deeply with others around the world: "People buy each day's poster not just because they respond to it, but because it reminds them of their grandmother, or it was their birthday, or it was the day they were going to be married before they had to cancel their wedding, or the day their baby was born—or even just as a reminder to dream."
As of today, over 300,000 people have used the #IsolationCreation hashtag on Instagram (they tag their own quarantine creations, inspired by Beck's project); Beck has shipped her posters to 65 countries worldwide and has raised over $20,000 for charity. The series, which spans 59 days, from March 14 to May 11, is nearly finished, as today also marks Beck's village's déconfinement. Yet this day, as momentous as it is for the photographer and her family, doesn't signal the end of the project: Beck will create one more piece to capture her post-quarantine life; this will debut tomorrow, on May 12. Here, Beck delves deeper into the series and explains how she remained steadfast and productive in quarantine—and shares her best advice for those who have the itch to document their own isolation experience.
On her fluid process.
Beck's methodology changes daily. "Some days I have an idea and I go and execute it—other days I don't, and I let the day sort of unfold until something sparks inspiration or an idea," she shares. Unexpected acts of kindness, like a neighbor who leaves cut flowers or a snail on a piece of lettuce on her doorstep, spiral into full-fledged creations: "I'm so lucky to have an amazing community here." Or, perhaps, it's the weather, a feeling, a current event: "I have to stay incredibly present in the moment to create something true to that day."
Once the concept is born, she steps into her studio and flicks on her Provence work music playlist. And then assembly begins: "I start by putting together all the pieces I need to create with. For example, if it's a still life, I set up the marble table with the subjects, props, my cases of butterflies, still life tool kit (which has museum wax, pins, and more things needed to build the scenes), and my camera and lens," she says. She positions a stock pot, which she uses as a stool, in front of her workstation and, "like a conductor," composes, photographs, and edits (layering or combining multiple shots to achieve the final product) the piece. "Mind you, all of this is balanced between the light that day and the baby's nap time or bedtime routine," notes Beck.
On silver linings.
"The only real struggle I have had during this period of isolation is balancing childcare, housework, and time for the daily creation," says Beck. "It is only my husband and I running the project together while taking care of our toddler without childcare, so we really have to coordinate hand-off times; there just isn't enough hours in the day!" Challenges aside, the photographer has also cherished this time with Eloise: "When we started quarantine, she could only crawl. We got to witness her first steps as she transformed in front of our eyes from a baby into a little kid."
On staying creative while inside—and looking inward for inspiration.
"I have found a lot of inspiration in the creative process itself—sitting down with whatever I have around me that day, from food on the kitchen counter to what's hanging in my closet or growing in the garden—and letting my imagination go," she says. "I feel like before COVID-19, I would look outwards for inspiration. I'd look at what other people are doing, look at other ways of life, other villages or people. What I've found is that what I needed was right here at home all along."
On her favorite piece.
Of her 59 photographs, Beck does have a favorite. "I love Day 27! I didn't know when I sat down that day at the still life table, looking at a broken piece of marble I bought at the antique market in Isle Sur la Sorgue, what I was going to do," she recalls. "I had these amazing peonies from a local shopkeeper's garden and some tulips from a nearby farm—I bought them from a farmer whose business was devastated by the lockdown. I thought about how the flowers were all of us, separate, but together, and I pulled out all of the glass vessels I could find to compose this piece. I find it so special. An isolated group of beauty."
On photographing indoors.
The key to shooting indoors, says Beck, is good lighting. "I am fortunate to live in a region of France called terre de lumière, or land of light. The light here sparkles, it dances, and it's a joy to paint photographs with," she shares. For anyone looking to take up indoor still life photography during quarantine, start here, she says—look for the area of your home with the best light source. And don't let gear (or a lack thereof) get in the way, adds Beck. "Get creative with what you have. I use an old poster board as a flag, my body to create shadows, a pot lid as a reflector. It doesn't matter. What matters is what's inside the frame, which should always come from your head and your heart."
On starting somewhere.
Maybe you aren't a vocational creative, like a photographer or painter. Even so, picking up a camera or a paint brush, says Beck, isn't off limits to you. "Don't think about what other people would say about what you want to create. Everyone's a critic, which is a lot easier to be than a creative. Instead, just make something!" she advises. "Make it for yourself and then one day, if you feel like it, share it with someone you trust."
And if messes or mistakes follow? That's only part of the ride, she says. "Artistic expression has existed for thousands of years, long before social media. There is something about human nature that is driven to express the universal experiences through all kinds of art forms, and that is not exclusive to only skilled people. We all must crawl before we can walk—so just start somewhere, and then don't stop."