Photo Essay

Farther apart, please: A group photo of Greater Lansing in lockdown

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Wherever there’s a get-together, there’s a photographer urging everyone to cram into the frame for “just one more.” Move closer in!

You smile at the wrong time, mill around awkwardly, smile again. Are we done? Then it’s back to the chips and beer. You smell like Aunt Frieda’s perfume for a while, but it wears off.

The years burnish those annoying group photos into irreplaceable records. You begin to measure life’s short span by a series of gatherings with family and friends — all too few.

The album that follows is the opposite of all that. The pandemic of 2020 was no get-together. It was the ultimate stay-apart.

Photographer Nicole Rico has spent the past several weeks trying to catch the strange spirit of a time Lansing has not experienced since 1918.

Barren streets, “closed” signs, mask-wearing figures furtively slipping in and out, grabbing take-out or a porch package and disappearing back into the house — those are the dominant images of the spring of 2020, when COVID-19 pandemic reached its first peak.

At the height of quarantine, under “shelter at home” orders from Gov. Grechen Whitmer, ducks openly walked the streets downtown.  Street dust gathered on empty patio tables. You could ride a bike up and down Capitol Avenue in mid-afternoon, wrong way, diagonally, crosswise, without a care. At the malls, in the neighborhoods, intrepid walkers encountered time-frozen images out of a post-apocalyptic movie.

In the middle of June, the City Pulse box outside the Golden Harvest Restaurant still displays a cover image from late March: a masked face and the words “It’s Here.”

Until the city began to open up in late May, the only significant street life in Lansing came in the form of raucous anti-lockdown protests, complete with Trump signs, Confederate flags and repulsive effigies of the governor as Hitler.

Knowing that the lockdown was a global phenomenon — a condition shared with people in London, Milan, Moscow, Beijing and Mumbai — only made it more surreal.

Monday, the return of dining-in at restaurants and bars marked the latest phase of reopening in Lansing. Nobody knows whether this extraordinary experience is over or we are only getting a reprieve until the virus roars back.

These photographs are unlikely to be treasured, but they may help with a more basic function: to remind our incredulous future selves, and our kids, that all of this weirdness really did happen.

They may also help us to get back together, with extra appreciation, when the time is right, to crowd in with the gang so closely that Aunt Frieda’s perfume takes a week to wear off.

— Lawrence Cosentino

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