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Photo Essay | David Ensminger
Montrose, Houston (2020) | ©David Ensminger

Photo Essay: Postcards from the COVID-19 Pandemic

Postcards from the milieu of the pandemic shutdown. A photo essay.

Since the mid-1980s, when I began drumming furiously and creating disheveled, Do-It-Yourself, xeroxed fanzines that covered the musical underground, my life conduit has been cramped indoor spaces. Whether dingy, claustrophobic clubs smelling like stale beer, mildew, and Lysol, full of skittering roaches too, or record stores piled with dusty, scratched LPs and dog-eared posters, I was always in the throng of stuff.

When the COVID-19 pandemic led to a shutdown in the US, seemingly overnight those spaces became hermetically sealed and off-limits, places to be feared. The invisible indoor air became suspicious: our scratchy masks seemed flimsy. Like so many, I was thrust into the museum of the streets, where the everyday sense of pop culture became heightened, pronounced, and more visible. 

I have always considered such vernacular spaces important, and I penned entire chapters about them in Visual Vitriol: The Street Art and Subcultures of the Punk and Hardcore Generation, which became my hallmark. The book explores how people use utility polls and record store pin-up boards to place homemade flyers, stickers, stencils, and aerosol art.  But once indoor spaces became shuttered, the entire panorama of the streets, the life outdoors betwixt and between buildings, quickly subsumed me again.

Murals and vintage signage remind me of the squelched communal joy of cocktails; stickers became art to contemplate outside of the vacated, uber-modern Menil Collection; yard signs brim with fiery political haiku and wisecracks, and store windows and doorways became odes to businesses suddenly felled by silence. An elephant perched on the entranceway of a dive bar with its sliding door pressed to the ground replaces the pleasures of the closed-to-the-public zoo.

‘Our life, interrupted’, becomes the not-so-secret motto of this era of tumult. Pop culture, in all its infinite entanglements and versions, becomes a way that people channel a sense of music gone away, the supreme importance of medicine, a politics riddled with grief and rage, and much more. Holidays come and go, seasons abate and blur. Blackouts and police beatings shake the frayed fabric of the republic.

For some, beaches became revelatory, while running beneath trees offers others miles of meditation. I, however, took solace in hundreds of sites and shapes waiting to be witnessed and chronicled. I feel more at ease doing street photography. The world seems to take on a new meaning. Moving through the landscape, I feel a bit of control and freedom capturing images of neon signs, a jukebox at an empty ice cream counter, art deco facades, AARP bulletins re-purposed for political protests, masks slipped on carved grotesques in front of a vintage neighborhood home, the backside of cars littered with bumper stickers, and weary mannequins full of faded glamour. This is the time when we all became voyeurs.  

Literally and metaphorically, I can breathe a bit more freely outside, snapping photographs instead of digging deep inside a bin of LPs or deep inside my own head. What follows are just some of my postcards from that milieu.

French Quarter, New Orleans (2021) ©David Ensminger

French Quarter, New Orleans (2021) ©David Ensminger

French Quarter, New Orleans (2021) ©David Ensminger

Bryan, Texas (2021) ©David Ensminger

Downtown Houston, Texas (2021) ©David Ensminger

Downtown Houston, Texas (2021) ©David Ensminger

Montrose neighborhood, Houston, Texas (2020) ©David Ensminger

Montrose neighborhood, Houston, Texas (2020) ©David Ensminger

Montrose neighborhood, Houston, Texas (2020) ©David Ensminger

Neartown neighborhood, Houston, Texas (2020) ©David Ensminger

Rice Village neighborhood, Houston, TX (2020) ©David Ensminger
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