I don’t want to call this project whimsical because it does a disservice to the hundreds of thousands of people who lost their lives and loved ones during the global pandemic. In fact, it really wasn’t whimsical at all. When the pandemic hit, my mind ran instantly to the familiar imagery of the 17th century plague doctor.
And I wanted to shoot that image, echoing the call to stay home. Of course, I was only able to do so after the restrictions were loosened somewhat and Alyssa and I were able to coordinate a socially-distanced shoot.
As with most sets, this series followed a basic stripdown pattern, only a little different since it was a costumed look. We broke the project down into three variations:
- Plague Doctor, Masked – the complete look
- Plague Doctor, Unmasked – no mask and sometimes no gloves, and
- Plague Doctor, Bare Essentials – robe, boots, and hat only
When I conceptualized the shoot, I had been living in Winston-Salem for less than six months so was unfamiliar with the area. I wanted to shoot somewhere woodsy. Sort of the doctor all alone at her home in the woods. A neighbor of mine recommended a park in town and so I drove over to scope it out. Just off of the paved trails were some wooded areas and then this great abandoned structure. Perfect.
Except for the panties, every single wardrobe item for this shoot was purchased from Amazon. Hat, mask, robe, harness, boots, gloves, pasties. I had debated going with a more traditional robe as usually seen in imagery of the plague doctor including a sort of neck wrap to truly conceal Alyssa. But it didn’t mesh with what I envisioned. The red cross pasties I thought were a nice touch.
For the signs, I bought some heavy stock paper and printed out the words “Stay Home” in a Victorian-era font on them. I ripped the sheets a little, doused them in coffee and coffee grounds, and finally baked them in the oven until they had a worn and weathered look. It wasn’t precisely what I wanted but it worked fine. There were nails already above the door frame of the structure so that worked out well.
The photos that I specifically planned for the shoot we didn’t shoot until the end after Alyssa had already stripped out of most of the outfit. (This is why I work much better when I remember to put together an actual shot list beforehand.) After putting the mask, harness, and pasties back on (I forgot about the gloves), I pulled out my little Bob Ross lunchbox filled with goodies and we took the last of the photos. These final shots were of the doctor engaging in a couple of normal stay-at-home activities: reading a book and playing cards. It was a toss up on which book to feature so I ended up using two: Leon Trotsky’s Fascism: What it Is and How to Fight It and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up. I wanted to present the image of a plague doctor, self-isolating in their own space in the woods. Even the plague doctor was staying home.
The shots that didn’t happen
Remember when we first went into lockdown? Downtowns were deserted. I wanted to shoot some of this on the streets downtown in the early morning initially, hoping to capture a very apocalyptic feel. However, because it was a while until we were able to coordinate the shoot, those barren streets filled back up making shooting on them improbable.