‘Eeriness comes with a sense of the unknown’: art, photography and Manchester in lockdown with Sara Porter.

By Alice Durocher, PhD Candidate at The Manchester Centre for Gothic Studies

If eeriness is found in the unknown, lockdown, social distancing, and face masks might be too much a part of everyday life to be truly unsettling anymore. Yet, while we are all waiting for Manchester to buzz with life again, the emptiness and quiet of the city remains a stark reminder that life as we know it has changed. The work of photographer Sara Porter demonstrates that creativity does not stop, and that art and photography are resilient: when movement sits still, art goes on. She captures the eeriness of everyday life, the uncanniness of the dark, and where these feelings meet in lockdown. Where the ‘new normal’ is full of contradictions, in the interview below Sara reflects on a year like no other where the weird, the new, and the strange blend in the everyday.

Sara Porter is an award-winning photographer living in Liverpool and working all over the UK and Europe. Her portfolios display a wide range of specialties, from portraits to architecture and drone photography – Sara has been CAA approved for drone photography since October 2020.

Your night-time photographs always have an eerie quality to them: no one in sight, a single streetlight, wet pavement…. Do night-time pictures and lockdown pictures (perhaps those even taken during the day) share a similar eeriness?

Eeriness comes with a sense of the unknown, which I think is more easily portrayed at night-time. Dark spaces in an image allow your mind to fill in the gaps and as a result create that sensation of unease. With lockdown, there have been empty spaces where there was once a lot of life; but during the day, empty cities, for me, have more of a dystopian feeling. It’ll be interesting to see how lockdown images are viewed in a few years after we have hopefully returned to some degree of normality. At the moment, they are too much of a record of daily life in the city to feel eerie.

Did lockdown, and all the changes it implies to everyday life, change the way you view mundane objects, activities and places and the way you want to capture them in your work? I’m thinking for example of ‘bin night’ on your Instagram (@saraporterphoto): are bin nights or the streets at night always strange in a way or did lockdown make them more eerie?

Mundane objects tend to be seen as mundane because we don’t take the time to look at them in any other way. Lockdown has provided the time and space to be able to look at everyday things differently. With limitations in where you can go to, you start to pay more attention to the things you pass daily, and you notice slight differences that come with the changing light and weather conditions. I’ve always liked the idea of creating a different view within an image to that which a viewer would normally expect. With the streets being especially quiet at night, they have certainly had an eerier feel to them.

You photograph the beach in Liverpool a lot. You must be used to photographing a quiet beach in Britain, but how did a quiet city change the way you photograph the space of the city? On one caption under a photograph of Spinningfields in Manchester, you write, ‘I can’t get over how quiet it is’. Other photographs capture the idea that the city is shut down and we are merely waiting for it to reopen… Do you think a quiet city is contradictory, almost impossible to capture?

I have been so extremely lucky to be living by the beach during lockdown. Perversely, the beach has probably never been so busy in complete contrast to the city. I don’t think quiet cities are impossible to capture; I think it just needs to be treated in the same way as any other photograph in that you need to know your subject and plan carefully how you are going to photograph it. Saying that, an empty city is not an easy thing to capture. With early mornings before shops and businesses open, you tend to be confronted by a range of delivery drivers. In the evening you have people out and about in theatres, bars and restaurants. If you spend some time getting to know an area, you start to pick up on when areas in the city are quiet. One example that comes to mind is a trip we made to London a few years ago. We chose to stay in the financial area of London over a weekend. In my mind, I had thought with it being London everywhere would be busy but, of course, with all the commercial offices closed for the weekend, it was like a ghost town.

With the Spinningfields image what struck me was the time when I was there and took that photograph; it would normally be a time when Manchester is bustling. It was midweek, lunchtime and just a few weeks before Christmas. If it was early Sunday morning then it wouldn’t have struck me as unusual. This perhaps highlights the importance of providing some textual context to an image when it is displayed. 

I find that we often don’t notice the architecture of the city because we are always moving; we are too busy getting to wherever we are going – and you capture this feeling in a couple of your photographs. I have noticed that you have started using drone photography this year, and that it gives a greater distance, and therefore greater space to capture the bigger picture of the city. Do you think the lockdown brought back attention to the buildings, the spaces of the city without people?

Lockdown gave us the time to be more observant but I’m not sure that we necessarily take advantage of it. People are so often caught up with looking at their phones or trying to find the nearest coffee shop. We also have a tendency to look at things at eye level, which, of course, is the space that tends to be occupied by shops and businesses. There is some amazing architecture in Manchester and a mix of architectural styles but you need to remember to look above the shops to take in a lot of it. Some of the best views are actually from the high floors of the city’s car parks. There are also some interesting alleyways and small quiet roads tucked away in the city and these are always worth a look.

The drone photography has been great for gaining a different perspective, especially in terms of seeing the bigger picture, and it allows us to see how the new architecture sits with the old. I’ve been photographing the Manchester skyline for many years and each time I photograph it, there are changes to it.

On your Instagram, there is a photograph of Manchester in February 2020: we were blissfully unaware of what would happen then, and what struck me were the movements you captured in this photograph. There are several more photographs of Manchester and Liverpool before lockdown: did the pandemic slow down your work like it ‘slowed down’ the city – metaphorically and literally?

Just as the pandemic struck, I’d been really busy with a number of projects. In December I had just finished an eighteen-month project photographing musicians for the 50 Portraits exhibition at Stoller Hall. I went straight from that into a corporate rebranding commission and we had a pretty full diary for the remainder of 2020 and then we got to March. From a commercial point of view everything stopped. Commercial work went on hold. I am not very good at doing nothing so I have been working on some personal projects: working with different cameras and techniques, teaching myself video editing. When the weather has been good, I’ve been out with the drone. I’ve had the opportunity to really explore the area where I live. So whilst commercial work has really slowed down, I’ve not stopped with the personal work.

For more information on Sara Porter, you can visit her website and her online print store. You can also visit her Instagram @saraporterphoto.