Anthrow Circus

View From a Pandemic: Observed in Nashville, No. 4

Photo by Joon Powell. The photographer’s mother, a retired physician, traveled to visit after being fully vaccinated. Even though she was safe from infection, the family took precautions by only being together outside and wearing masks.


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 will be shown at two Nashville institutions: in 2021 at the Scarritt Bennett Center and in 2022 at Vanderbilt University, where it will become part of the permanent fine art collection. In the months leading up to these exhibits 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.

As vaccines become more widely available in the United States and infection rates decline, spring offers some hope. In this collection, “Breathe,” Nashville-based photographers John Partipilo, Dawn Majors, Bill Steber, and Joon Powell record the early blossoms as Nashvillians begin to cautiously emerge from a surreal and desolate period of isolation to welcome the touch of a grandparent, celebrate their immunity, and at last, breathe a little easier.

“1, 2, 3, 4. Breathe, hold for 2 seconds, release with a sigh.” Release all the stress and anxiety with each exhale. 2021 has arrived and with it a glimmer of hope is in the air, a lightness as vaccines are administered and the idea of a “new normal” seems close at hand. These images reflect the freedom of times past when we took for granted the air we breathed and the freedom to move about the earth at leisure. There is hope, I think—1, 2, 3, 4, breathe.

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.

My husband sleeps off his first vaccine dose while our son plays. Listening to his long, even sleeping breaths that day, I felt more peace than I had in a long time.

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.

Plague doctor, standing in the landscape of the Badlands in South Dakota. At the time these tintypes were made in October 2020, South Dakota had one of the highest COVID-19 infection rates in the world. The mask the doctor wears references 17th-century European physicians who treated low-income bubonic plague victims while breathing through bird-like masks which were filled with herbs and flowers. The purpose of the mask was to fill the breath with aromatics and keep away bad smells, which were thought at the time to be the principal cause of the disease.

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.

Driver Ashley Graham celebrates her vaccination by shooting Silly String at Courtney Easter, in the passenger seat, and Tatiana Walton, in the back seat. On Saturday, March 20, the Nashville Department of Health offered 10,000 doses of the single-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine at the Nissan Stadium in Nashville.

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.

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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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