Pandemic portraits a labour of love for Calgary photographer

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They are eclectic in terms of tone, composition and setting. Zeller figures he braved every shade of temperamental weather Mother Nature is capable of throwing at Albertans: Rain, sleet, hail, snow . . . even a close-call tornado. Along the way, he came across goofy families, happy families, sad families, pets and irritable teenagers.

One portrait in the exhibition features a five-piece family celebrating an apparent abundance of then-rare toilet paper. One features a couple engaged in a light-sabre battle. Another family invited Zeller to do a maternity shoot but before he got there had delivered their baby. Another is of a family holding up a portrait of their 10-year-old daughter, who passed away from cancer just prior to the lockdown.

“It was just days before COVID started,” Zeller says. “The advice they received was to keep people around them after their daughter passed and then they were told to go into isolation. This has been a real struggle. They have a prominent part in the show because their story is poignant and there are many other people like that who have had a COVID tragedy during this pandemic and weren’t able to even grieve and share in the way they normally would in a regular time.”

While Zeller’s photography business has begun to pick up recently and he earned some money through donations throughout the project, this has clearly been a labour of love. His plan is to turn the project into a book, which could include revisiting the same families a few years later. Financially, it was not an easy ride, but Zeller turned down corporate sponsorship so he could maintain control and the integrity of the project. He and his wife didn’t qualify for CERB or any other type of government subsidy.

“We’re still here,” he says with a laugh. “I’ve come up with the phrase: It’s the hardest I’ve ever worked for the least amount of money,” Zeller says. “It wasn’t a complaint, it was an acknowledgment of effort it took for myself and other small businesses to keep paying the bills.”

Porchraits: Calgary Families in Isolation During COVID-19 opens at the Glenbow Museum on Sept. 5. The Glenbow is open weekends and holidays. Admission to Glenbow requires a timed ticket. Purchase or reserve timed admission online. Visit glenbow.org.

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