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Interview'With a pandemic everything goes out the window'

NY photographer humorously captures life under quarantine with mom and ex-wife

Writer and shutterbug Neil Kramer turns his lens inward, focusing on a short-term living arrangement that only a global pandemic could have prolonged

  • Author and photographer Neil Kramer in a quarantine-style bath with mother and ex wife crowding in. (Courtesy of Kramer)
    Author and photographer Neil Kramer in a quarantine-style bath with mother and ex wife crowding in. (Courtesy of Kramer)
  • Author and photographer Neil Kramer began photographing life under lockdown with his mother and ex wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)
    Author and photographer Neil Kramer began photographing life under lockdown with his mother and ex wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)
  • Author and photographer Neil Kramer wonders at the wisdom of the US government's coronavirus response, as he remains under lockdown with his mother and ex-wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)
    Author and photographer Neil Kramer wonders at the wisdom of the US government's coronavirus response, as he remains under lockdown with his mother and ex-wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)
  • Author and photographer Neil Kramer in his childhood bedroom in Queens, New York, as he hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Kramer)
    Author and photographer Neil Kramer in his childhood bedroom in Queens, New York, as he hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Kramer)

When Neil Kramer and I spoke in late April over a popular video conferencing platform, the 50-year-old writer was situated in his childhood bedroom in Queens. It was a Sunday afternoon, seven weeks into a COVID-19 stay-at-home mandate for Kramer and all other “non-essential” New Yorkers. Peeking out from the narrow closet behind him were his baseball glove, a trophy, a mug, and some board games from the ’70s.

Kramer lives in a high-rise building in one of the sections of New York City most impacted by Coronavirus. There, he shares a two-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment with his 86-year-old mother, Elaine, and his ex-wife, Sophia, who he’s been divorced from for seven years.

As of our call, the last day Kramer went anywhere significant was on March 7, his birthday.

“We were still making jokes about Purell then,” Kramer recalls. “We went out to a diner for breakfast. Sophia was wearing gloves. My mother and I thought that would be embarrassing and insulting to the waitress.”

In other words, only Sophia was outwardly taking the news of a global pandemic seriously at that point.

Author and photographer Neil Kramer in his childhood bedroom in Queens, New York, as he hunkers down during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy of Kramer)

Kramer and I have known each other online for almost a decade now, via writing and blogging communities. However, this was the first time we had actually spoken, the meeting prompted by my request to interview him — not about his writing, but rather his lockdown photographs.

Street photography has been a side project of Kramer’s for years. Mainly, his subjects were strangers — people on the subway, on the corner, at the deli. However, “everything that was cool about New York City is now bad,” he says. “I haven’t left the house. Before, half of my photos were taken on the subway.”

Kramer explains that the trio’s living arrangement “had nothing to do with the virus. [It was] just a weird coincidence.”

Since moving back to New York from Los Angeles a few years ago, Kramer has been living alone in the apartment in which he grew up, save for a few months in the summer when his mother returns from her winter residence in south Florida.

Author and photographer Neil Kramer began photographing life under lockdown with his mother and ex wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)

The three agreed to the current living arrangement last summer, in large part due to a moving mishap Sophia experienced out in LA, along with Elaine’s decision to skip Florida this year. Of course, none of them expected that the three weeks they had agreed upon would turn into three months and counting due to a global pandemic. Yet here they are, together still, in a tiny apartment just down the street from Aron’s kosher supermarket and around the corner from the Yeshiva of Central Queens.

Kramer had been periodically chronicling their unique living situation before the pandemic hit New York so terribly, but in late March he posted the first quarantine-related photo of the three on Instagram and Facebook.

This is when I started paying even closer attention to his photos. In the foreground of that first shot, US President Donald Trump is on TV speaking at a press conference with Vice President Mike Pence — but it’s the three roommates whose expressions and body language immediately attract the eye.

Author and photographer Neil Kramer wonders at the wisdom of the US government’s coronavirus response, as he remains under lockdown with his mother and ex-wife. (Courtesy of Kramer)

“This wasn’t a project to begin with,” Kramer says. “I worked in Hollywood. I know what happens when something starts to be ‘a project.’ It starts to feel phony.”

“I have one friend who is a real street photographer,” he says. “This guy went to Elmhurst Hospital and took photos of dead people being taken out. There was tension for me about taking street photography during a time like this. It felt cool, but also irresponsible in some ways.”

Fear also quickly set in as the numbers of cases and deaths grew. Soon, none of the three would feel safe leaving the building. Even the thought of going downstairs to the laundry room became intolerable.

“At one point, we decided to hang up the laundry outside. My mother said, ‘No! That’s a shanda! The neighbors will see us hanging laundry on the terrace,’” says Kramer, using the Yiddish term for shame. “I said, ‘Mom this is a pandemic. No one gives a crap.’”

In a short time, the photographs became a way to cope with the new restrictions and way of life, says Kramer. “More than anything this was a big cry for help.”

Since mid-March, Kramer has chronicled their cramped quarantine experience with staged replications of events that happened earlier that day or week — from a gathering around the kitchen table to take their morning medications, to a highly charged grocery delivery, to a way-too-cramped sharing of the one bathroom.

Kramer chronicles their cramped quarantine experience with staged replications of events that happened earlier that day or week

“That one was the hardest shot. It came out of a true thing,” recalls Kramer. “There’s no lock on the door; it broke years ago. I’ve been taking baths every day — out of a need for space. People have to go to the bathroom while I’m in a bath. Well, with a pandemic everything goes out the window.”

Author and photographer Neil Kramer in a quarantine-style bath with mother and ex wife crowding in. (Courtesy of Kramer)

Reflecting back on the setting up of that shot, Kramer says, “The bathroom is six feet. There was a tripod and a light in there. We ended up fighting because my mother was paranoid the light would fall in the water and electrocute me. It ends up the story behind the taking of the photo is more interesting than the photo.”

Kramer also talks about the one shot he never managed to get: something to commemorate their “terrible Passover Seder.”

“There was all this tension over the matzoh ball soup. My mother makes it from the package. But Sophia was against that. Then, Sophia wouldn’t drink Manischewitz; we needed to buy regular red wine. It felt like Downton Abbey,” Kramer says. “There was an underlying [class] conversation there.”

“Then the doorbell rings in the middle of the seder. It’s our Amazon delivery. But we didn’t want to open the door. With my mother and Sophia arguing the whole time, there’s no time for me to pick up my camera. The only way is maybe the next day. I thought about it. But before I knew it, Passover was over,” he says.

A few weeks later, on Day 46 of shelter-in-place, Kramer portrayed the other side of Sophia and his mother’s relationship with a photo of the two women pausing over lit Shabbat candles. Kramer is in the background — in his underwear — watching an angry Trump on the television.

Kramer elaborates about Sophia’s role in the household: “Potentially, my mother and I would be more apt to die here without her.” Sophia took charge of safety measures from the beginning, he says, and is the one hitting refresh on the Amazon delivery page until they get lucky and secure a time slot.

Being here with someone in her 80s, it really makes you more connected to the ageism of the world

“Being here with someone in her 80s, it really makes you more connected to the ageism of the world,” Kramer says. “Especially when you hear some states that are like, ‘Let’s get back to work.’ Poorer and older people — they can’t take care of themselves. There are a lot of older people in the building. In the beginning, I wanted to ask them if I could help them. But it’s hard to do because you don’t want to bring it back to your own family. I hate that part.”

Despite the highly charged atmosphere, Kramer tells me of positive changes that have come about in his relationships with his ex-wife and mother.

“Me and my mother are not huggers,” he says. “But since this started, we made a pact to get up in the morning and hug each other.”

We made a pact to get up in the morning and hug each other

“I’m sleeping in the living room,” Kramer tells me. “But at the same time we’re scared and sometimes Sophia calls me and I go in and we hug each other. She was a little concerned taking a photo like that. But I thought it’s communicating something everyone else was feeling.”

Kramer is referencing an image from Day 41 of their shelter-in-place: he and Sophia are both in the bed in his bedroom, undressed but covered.

In the caption of that photo, Kramer writes, “We’re still human and need intimacy and touch, even if it is not sexual. No matter the relationship, Sophia and I have been connected in some way for over twenty years. There are some nights where one of us is crying, exhausted and unhappy. We watch the news on TV in the bedroom at 3AM, and we are filled with fear and sadness for the thousands who have died. Our government has failed us. We hug for an hour, almost too tightly, because we need to remember what love feels like, and then we go back to our separate beds.”

As for being subjects in what is inevitably becoming a “project,” Elaine and Sophia are mostly willing, but have their limits. Setting up can take an hour, the shoot takes another 10 minutes, and then they all spend two hours making the place look nice again.

“It requires compromises,” Kramer says. “They’re giving me a certain amount of time before they get pissy. Like, my mother’s not going to change her outfit three times to match the colors.”

For all the humor in his shots — one of which shows him naked on the floor reaching for just-delivered, much-needed toilet paper — Kramer is very aware that there will be some post-traumatic stress around all of this for him, if not all three of them.

“Underneath, there’s a lot of sadness and anxiety,” he admits. “It’s one of the hardest experiences… The shooting is becoming harder. We don’t want to spend as much time together.”

Plus, there are the stories too sad to tell with a photograph, he says, like the older people dying in the building and the funerals no one can attend.

“People are very close here. Even if you hate your neighbor, if someone dies you go sit shiva,” Kramer says, referring to the Jewish week of ritual mourning. “This woman passed away, the first question, what does everyone do? The kids left a message. There’s no funeral.”

Kramer says he’s doing his best to maintain the realism of the moment inside his staged shots. He’s also learning a lot more about photography along the way, from lighting to setting up a tripod to execution. Further, he realizes how lucky he is compared to others, even compared to his mother.

“As a writer, it’s not killing me to be inside,” Kramer says. “But my mom? She had a social life. She went out. She played mahjong.”

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