Many of the portrait series we’ve featured on this site during quarantine have been of people the photographers didn’t know beforehand. Unacquainted neighbors usually make up the crux of these series, but Will Crooks went in a different direction for his batch of photos. The Greenville, South Carolina-based photographer, inspired by Thomas Wolfe’s novel, has named his series “You Can’t Go Home Again.”
Our interview with Will has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Q: For someone who isn’t as familiar with Wolfe’s work, what are the main things you’d say about it (other than the major concepts of nostalgia, loss, things like that)?
A: My choice to title this piece after Wolfe’s You Can’t Go Home Again was driven by not only the content of the novel but also the feeling the title conveys. I wanted to address how this global pandemic is shifting our experience of home in the literal and figurative sense. This passage from Wolfe’s work best summons up the feelings I want to capture through my portraits in this series. “You can’t go back home to your family, back home to your childhood … back home to a young man’s dreams of glory and of fame … back home to places in the country, back home to the old forms and systems of things which once seemed everlasting but which are changing all the time – back home to the escapes of Time and Memory.” The loss of a sense of place captured in this work as well as the tumultuous shifts on a global scale experienced by the protagonist George Webber during his travels both at home and abroad felt relatable to the current struggles people are experiencing during this global pandemic.
Q: Tell me about your hometown — how long have you been there? How well do you know your neighbors? How well do your neighbors know each other, if you happen to have a sense of that?
A: I live in Greenville, SC. It is a small city that has been growing quickly over the past 15 years but still certainly retains the air of a small southern city. The creative community is quite small, and you end up only being one degree of separation from knowing just about everyone in the creative scene. I think of the creative community here as my family, and this project has given me a chance to catch up and check in on them during these strange and challenging times. For this project, I wanted to keep the subjects to friends and family with whom I have a deep connection. This brings an intimacy to the portraits that I believe would be difficult to replicate photographing strangers.
Q: Whom did you shoot first and why? Who are some of your friends and family shown in the work?
A: I first photographed my close friend Jen. I had been discussing the initial idea for this project with her, and she volunteered to be the first test shoot for the project. She had also recently broken her collarbone in a biking accident, so the shoot gave me a good excuse to check in on her.
While photographing her, I realized how much it meant to me to be able to photograph those close to me during this time when most of the editorial and commercial work I do has completely dried up. These portraits allow me to make meaningful and collaborative images with the creatives in my community that continuously inspire me through their own practices in various creative mediums. I am more aware than ever of how the process of making an individual’s portrait is the purest way I can connect with another person.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your work? What’s been the reaction so far?
A: I want this body of work to speak to the personal experience of each individual going through this collective, global pandemic. I want to give a window into the experience in small town America where the disease looms more as a storm on the horizon rather than the torrential rainstorm that large metropolitan cities like New York and Detroit are currently experiencing. There is a certain surrealism the images impart to the viewer. I chose to photograph at the first hour of light and last hour of light of the day to give the images more of an atmosphere and mood that is cinematic.
This time of the year everything is blooming in the South, and I try, when possible, to include these transient blooms to create an environment that feels almost too idyllic. In my town, there is strange normality when driving through neighborhoods. You see families on walks, kids shooting hoops in the driveway, and plenty of bikers getting in spring rides. I want my photos to capture that strange juxtaposition of a seemingly normal, beautiful Southern spring day with the oppressive feeling of the subjects’ isolation and somber mood through their gestures and expressions.
I chose to photograph only one person in each image to also create a physical representation of the isolation every individual is experiencing in at least some facet of their life. So far, the reaction to the series has been quite positive with many people feeling a strong connection to the subjects and the mood being evoked through the imagery and reference points.
Q: Any other anecdotes or experiences from this work you’d care to share?
This project has allowed me to connect with other creatives who are struggling to deal with the challenges of isolation from a personal and professional capacity. The shoots and editing process have given structure and purpose to my days since photo work has dried up, and isolation has wreaked havoc on my anxiety. I have been doing this project while recovering from a torn plantar fascia tendon in my foot, so there is a certain absurd humor to me hobbling around on crutches and standing on step ladders in a walking boot while photographing my friends through windows and on porches at the crack of dawn. Documenting my closest friends and family has been a grounding practice during all of this uncertainty.
See more of Will’s work on his website.
Read more about Will on our Published Blog.
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