Earlier this year, the photographer and writer Neil Kramer’s mother, Elaine, moved in with him, returning to the Queens apartment where they lived together during his childhood. Soon after, his ex-wife, Sophia, was forced to move out of her Los Angeles home due to a ceiling leak; during the transition, she joined the family at the two-bedroom, one-bath New York apartment. “This was all supposed to be temporary,” Kramer remembers. “And then March hit, and Queens became the epicenter of the COVID-19 virus, and we found ourselves stuck together.”
Kramer, his mother, and his ex-wife spent the spring and summer together in that same apartment, as the pandemic raged on in the background. “For a while, my neighborhood in Queens was the epicenter, and it really felt like the end of the world,” he remembers. “For a few weeks, at least in my mind, I could imagine what it must feel like to be in a war-torn country, afraid of leaving the house, and needing to protect your family at all costs.”
Throughout it all, the headlines and the tragedies, they navigated everyday life as a trio. There’s Elaine, who’s 86, loves mystery novels and British mysteries, and keeps her son up-to-date on pop culture; there’s Sophia, whom the photographer calls “the first big love of my life. And then there’s the artist himself, an ever-curious street photographer who suddenly found himself homebound.
“There has been a lot of tension living in such close quarters,” Kramer admits. “From Sophia and my mother battling over who controls the kitchen. From battles between Sophia and I over what exactly ‘our relationship’ now is about. To the sudden awareness that my mother is 86, and that I was now in the position of almost being the parent, restricting her from going shopping or getting the mail, fearful of her getting sick.
“Learning how to buy food online, getting it delivered, and using lysol on each object was a major pain and caused a lot of stress. But as time went on, we adapted, and eventually it became like an assembly line, and we were proud of that.”
They also developed new family traditions. Before the pandemic, Elaine spent much of her time with friends, playing cards and mahjong, and attending the theater; to distract her in quarantine, the photographer and his ex-wife started playing cards too so they could all play together. “Eventually, it became something we looked forward to each night after dinner,” Kramer tells us.
Kramer never stopped taking pictures; in those first few weeks, he took a documentary approach, photographing his family as they went about their daily lives, but it soon evolved into a collaborative undertaking. “This project became a form of therapy, like ‘putting on a show’ for ourselves as personal expression,” he says. The scenarios might be staged, but they are based on real events–often events that happened just a few days earlier.
This series also marked the first time Kramer has jumped into the frame himself. “During the moments that had some drama, like the anxiety of dealing with the new experience of getting our groceries delivered, I was so involved in the process, such as scrubbing each package, that I was unable to be the traditional observer/ photographer,” tells us. “Eventually, I put myself in the shots, something I have never done before, hating self-portraits.
“But I felt it was important to see all three of us as the family. I taught myself how to tether to my laptop. I started to restage the scenes, almost like a movie, and I learned that fictional recreations can sometimes deliver a bigger truth than documentary. Most importantly, it gave us all something to think about rather than just doing the laundry and making dinner.”
Like everything else in quarantine, the project wasn’t without its hiccups. “There is one photo in the series where I am taking a bath and being interrupted by my mother and Sophia, a classic example of lack of privacy,” the artist says. “The behind-the-scenes story is more dramatic than the photo itself, and I will always remember it.
“We were all in a very tiny bathroom, along with a tripod, a light stand and my tethered laptop precariously on the sink, and my mother freaking out that the laptop would fall into the water and electrocute me. It was incredibly tense, uncomfortable, and crazy, as if the pandemic itself wasn’t stressful enough. But it was also at this moment that I began to really appreciate them for doing this project with me. I respected them even as we all fought with each other. It was a real moment of family togetherness.”
As the summer draws to a close, plans remain uncertain for the family. They speak about next steps, but they’re still living together for now. “In some ways, it has gotten easier,” Kramer admits. “We have adapted and developed habits. But it has also gotten harder. The newness of our situation has worn off, and now we fear that this might be a long time thing. We appreciate having each other, but it can be lonely at times. We shouldn’t be forced to be with each other all the time.”
For Kramer, this time has been important in many ways; it’s helped him appreciate how hard his mother worked when he was a child, and it’s helped him to resolve some lingering questions with Sophia. But it’s also been complicated. “There is something very touching and family-oriented by the way we have adjusted to this quarantine,” he tells me.
“We now see each other outside of our traditional roles–wife, son, mother-in-law, etc. We have become roommates and friends. The boundaries have been knocked away. We have walked into each other while in the bathroom. We have taken responsibility for each other in new ways.
“On the other hand, none of this is psychologically healthy. I wish I could say that I will only remember the togetherness of this eccentric little family. Unfortunately, I will also remember the stress and the fear. The photography helped us deal with that.”
“When this is over, I will miss the comfort and security of my world being so small. It reminds me of the intimacy of childhood again, when life revolved around your family. But at the same time, it’s not real life. I will remember this period of my life as a very strange one, almost out of a novel–the story of a guy unexpectedly living with the two most important women of my life.”
You can follow Neil Kramer and the evolution of Quarantine in Queens on Instagram at @neilochka.