Anthrow Circus

View From a Pandemic: Observed in Nashville, No. 3

Photo by John Partipilo. COVID-19 caregivers are photographed on the skybridge at Vanderbilt Medical Center. From left, they are Respiratory Therapist Lizzie Davenport, ICU Patient Care Services Manager RN Devin Bunch, Registered Nurse Maddie White, Nurse Practitioner Susan Hellervik, and ICU Registered Nurse Lauren Birmingham.


Illustrating their divergent perspectives and practices, four photographers from Nashville, Tennessee, USA, each with a solid foundation in newspapers, have prepared a pandemic-era exhibit that is slated to be presented in 2021 at the Scarritt Bennett Center and at Vanderbilt University, both in Nashville. In the months leading up to the exhibit we’re featuring their work in an ongoing Anthrow Circus series, a project that is as much a study of photographic styles as a record of the pandemic.

In this collection, “The Darkest Before the Dawn,” from their ongoing series, Nashville-based photographers John Partipilo, Dawn Majors, Bill Steber, and Joon Powell reflect on the greatest challenges faced during the pandemic. From a national racial reckoning, to Americans’ inability to safely work and connect, to the feelings of overwhelm and loss, the group explores all these hurdles encountered during a turbulent year of pandemic.

Members of Black Lives Matter lay in silence near Legislative Plaza in Nashville for 8 min and 45 seconds in tribute to George Floyd, who was killed in police custody.

Veteran newspaper photographer and photography instructor John Partipilo encapsulates Nashville’s diverse population with the observant and patient eye of a painter. His photographs of Nashvillians as they experience isolation, protest, sickness, and more lay bare the experience of many southern Americans at this unique historical moment.

I’ve been on semi-lockdown with my eldest sister during the past year of the pandemic. She is immune compromised so we are on high alert in my house. On this particular day, as I passed her room to get to mine, I captured this image. I’m not sure what my temperament might have been if I’d been locked down alone. Since I still work around the general public, we keep separate most days and wear masks within common areas. But in our rooms, we are free—well, as free as anyone gets to feel during these uncertain days.

Dawn Majors’ photos are a quiet exploration of the intersection of nature and humanity’s odd creations, with a gentle affirmation of her own identity. At once painterly and specific, macabre and whimsical, Majors’ full-on embrace of her cell phone as a tool shows a jaunty appreciation for pedestrian discoveries with an escapist appeal.

Blues artist Lucious Spiller wears a protective mask beside a massive bottle tree created by artist Stephanie Dwyer at Hopson Plantation in Clarksdale, Mississippi. Bottle trees go back to eighth-century Congo as a means of keeping away evil spirits. The tradition came to America through the culture of enslaved Africans and continues to this day. Hopson Plantation was the site where the first commercially produced mechanical cotton picker was demonstrated, the adoption of which led to the great migration of Blacks from the South to the North.

Bill Steber’s larger body of work documents blues music and the American South using antiquated photographic processes. A tenured portraitist, Steber’s work is informed by a lifetime of visual storytelling paired with an extensive knowledge of music and the history of photography. The specific pandemic portraits created for this project utilize a wet plate process, which gives the images a haunting, timeless quality.

The hardest part of the pandemic for me has been the fear of being overcome by forces outside my control, such as a person in my circle becoming infected or becoming ill from prolonged isolation in an unstable economy. This image shows my then five-year-old daughter waking from a nap. The shadows appear to close around her neck while her face has an Ophelian expression. While we so far have been able to stave off personal tragedies, there is still a feeling we could easily be pulled underwater. 

Joon Powell wields both a digital SLR and a 4×5 film camera to show her family’s isolation during the coronavirus pandemic. Drawing from the tradition of Emmet Gowin or Sally Mann, Powell documents her family, often using a series of diptychs to deepen the images’ meaning.

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Joon Powell is a photographer based in Nashville, Tennessee. Her years making images for newspapers, social justice organizations, and libraries/archives lay the foundation for her art today. Using the same attention to light and her surroundings, Joon turned her lens on her own life, documenting her family, home, and community as it ebbs and flows. Her current projects include the book The Pearl and the Wolfe, which explores motherhood as well as children’s connection to the natural world, through the medium of skillfully sequenced photography and poems by Joon and her sister. 
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John Partipilo is a national award-winning photojournalist, artist, and author of two photography books, Cuba: My World Ends Here and Rancho Beyondo. Partipilo won a Best of Photojournalism award from the National Press Photographer's Association for his series Gangs of Middle Tennessee and a first runner-up Pulitzer nomination as part of The Tennessean's editorial staff for his work covering the 2010 Nashville Flood. For 20 years he has been documenting poverty, homelessness, and the human condition in Tennessee.

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Dawn Majors is an African-American photographer whose interest in photography began when she was a sophomore in high school. A graduate of Western Kentucky University’s photojournalism program, she spent nearly a decade working at the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper, where she documented everything from abject poverty to politics. A returned native of Nashville, she’s currently working as a photographer for the State of Tennessee. Her photography is fueled by  her fairly humble beginnings—as the daughter of a hog farmer and brick mason's son—and her lifelong curiosity. Because Dawn uses photography as a form of meditation, much of her work is personal and never sees the light of day. Her choice of medium, a cell phone, allows her to become invisible to others. In this she finds freedom. Her images usually begin with a question: I wonder ... .

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A native of Centerville, Tennessee, who now lives in Murfreesboro, Bill Steber was a staff photojournalist for The Tennessean in Nashville from 1989-2004, winning dozens of regional and national awards while shooting everything from national politics to New York runway fashion and the Super Bowl. Working now as a freelance photographer, his work is published in regional, national, and international magazines. In particular, he has been documenting Mississippi's blues culture and exploring 21st-century American culture through the use of 19th-century wet plate photography. In addition to his photography, Steber makes music with The Jake Leg Stompers, the Hoodoo Men, The Jericho Road Show and The Worried Minds. Bill's work can be found at these galleries: Carl Hammer Gallery in Chicago, The Arts Company in Nashville, and Box Galerie in Brussels, Belgium. 

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