By April

Guest Columnist

Sag Harbor, NY, USA


I met Lori Hawkins at her studio this past summer in the middle of the COVID crisis, but when the peak seemed to be waning in our notorious area. 


Her work had been praised by friends of mine who thought her acuity and generosity with her subjects was impressive. I related to the people she’d chosen to photograph—neighbors, gardeners, friends, the community. That latter word is soon to be tired currency, I fear, in spite of our even-greater need for it now and all it implies. Looking at her work after the shoot (which was comfortable, easy, and very like Lori) I found myself feeling particularly compelled by the gaze she communicated in her work. She was seeing subjects with a dispassionate regard that allowed their personae to be included, not just objectified. It was actively mediated in a way that encouraged intimacy. This style-not-style approach offered real engagement, so needed in this tactile-less time. The more I looked, the more my gratitude deepened. I had met her sitters. It was togetherness.


APRIL GORNIK: This is a project that clearly is about your own, very local community. The notion of “community” is so used// overused these days, but your project vividly brings it to life. Can you talk about its genesis, and how this impulse came to you?


LORI HAWKINS: I started photographing the pandemic in New York City.  I shot death and dying until I reached a point that I couldn’t do it anymore. I was continually quarantining myself. When I was in Bridgehampton with my family, I couldn’t get close to my girls, and I didn’t leave the house. It was late May that I decided I had enough of shooting the negative effects the virus had on neighborhoods, communities, and people. It was a season of grief, and I had to find a release. I had a desire to do a portrait project, and I wanted to get close. I wanted intimacy. I wanted to see people and talk to people. I had a desire to catalog the people that I knew—one after the other.

Carlos Lama - Musician

I began the project by setting up a white seamless backdrop in my garage. My daughter Eva, still in her pajamas, sat for me to test the lighting. As New York opened up in phases, people were willing to socialize, but at a distance. The willingness to get out was my cue to begin the project. I ramped it up quickly, thinking that the pandemic would end in a month or two.



APRIL GORNIK: One thing we all miss is the presence of touch in COVID, and these photos feel so accessible. I find them very tactile. Can you talk about that, if you agree that it applies?


LORI HAWKINS: I feel like I am touching the subject with my camera. I keep wanting to get closer and closer. My camera gives me the tool to be close without physically touching the subject.

Amy Kirwin - Director of Programs - Southampton Arts Center

Early in the phased reopening, I was very vigilant about keeping my distance. I didn’t want to get sick, nor did I want to get someone sick. As time passed and the infection rate began to drop, I continued to move closer to the subject.



APRIL GORNIK: Do you know everyone represented personally? What are your prerequisites for inclusion, if you have any?


LORI HAWKINS: I’ve enjoyed photographing people I know, who then suggest someone else that I may not know. It has been one or two degrees of separation.


When I reach out to people, I often find that it’s generally someone I have photographed in the past. I shoot for a local newsgroup, The Press News Group. My assignments take me from book readings to big Galas. There are many people that I’ve met in my “drive-by” assignments, where I’m not around long enough to engage in a conversation.


I may find someone on social media, someone I had met and added as a friend on Facebook or followed on Instagram. I reach out with a quick message about the project and invite them to participate. Social media has played a role in this project, but only to find sitters.


Nonie Williams - Pool Technician

APRIL GORNIK: So many great portraitists have developed a style based on presenting a person that then is adapted to their vision. I’m thinking of Avedon and Chuck Close, as instances. But when I look at your portraits, I feel you’re making a specific space but adapting to the personalities you find, so the viewer is meeting your subjects halfway between your vision and their reality. Would you say this is accurate? If so, can you elaborate?


LORI HAWKINS: I invite them in, and my first instinct is to speak to them, then I realized it’s better to wait and allow them to get comfortable and perform their natural motions, and that’s when the best portraits appear.



APRIL GORNIK: Do you direct your sitters to behave a certain way?


LORI HAWKINS: It never occurs to me to direct the sitter unless the sitter's rigidity is implacable, in which case I might make a suggestion that would naturalize the furrow of their brow or the purse of their lips.


My instinct is to lull the viewer into a relaxed place, but sometimes that's not possible. I've just learned it's easier to give the sitter a few queues.


I also have people that are genuinely used to being engaged in this type of medium, and they're looking for direction. In this case, I find it unnerving because suddenly I'm doing something that isn't necessarily how I photograph but challenges me, which makes the whole concept more interesting.

A woman prays during a burial (New Jersey - April 16, 2020)


APRIL GORNIK: It used to be the case that artists in NY would automatically downgrade art made by people in other cities or localities. How do you feel about taking local photos of local people on the East End as a New York City-based artist? There seems to be a seismic shift happening in art about a respect for local vs national/international and the values the art world and art marketplace on it.


LORI HAWKINS: Starting with the #metoo movement, we began to look inward and less at celebrity and more at cause and effect. The conversation then included BLM. When we narrow the focus, we are able to recognize and see the people around us more specifically and their value, instead of looking at the outside, the next greatest, the prettiest, the next best.


It reverts us into ourselves and into what is around us directly. We don’t look to outsource identities, ideas, or influences; we’re looking at literally what is physically in front of us.


Lori Hawkins

APRIL GORNIK: Since these are photographs documenting people from a specific time, how do you feel things are changing during the pandemic?


LORI HAWKINS: Every day we see a change during the pandemic. We’re all navigating the new normal, the masks, the social distancing, the phased reopening, the unsettling feeling of not having a vaccine. The pandemic seems to be never-ending. Kids are going back to school in these uncertain times, every school with a different plan.


Young Orthodox Jewish boys return home after riding their scooters
(Brooklyn, New York - 
June 24, 2016)

APRIL GORNIK: Do you feel you’re “doing something “about COVID?


LORI HAWKINS: Yes, as a photojournalist I am documenting a piece of history. From bearing witness from the epicenter to this seismic shift of an urban setting, I’m creating a visual record.

Times Square Protest (New York - September 20, 2020)


APRIL GORNIK: Since we’ve all become zoomed-out, is the fact you’re manifesting physicality so vividly in these photographs significant?


LORI HAWKINS: With these photographs, I’m having a personal dialogue, a physical conversation in person. All of this is completely counter to zoom. Zoom is the Instagram of connectivity. You can make your life appear how you want on zoom. These photographs are gripping, concerning; they’re meant to haunt you and inspire you. It’s very different from a zoom identity.



APRIL GORNIK: Do you start with everyone in same place in your barn/garage?


LORI HAWKINS: I only shoot in my garage.The lighting is very similar from one portrait to the next. I’m documenting my community by extracting the subjects from their environment, and everyone has the same blank canvas.



APRIL GORNIK: How do you feel this work is different from your previous work?


LORI HAWKINS: COVID is about limiting engagements, and ironically this project has expanded my engagements. The irony is not lost and in fact has given me the energy to look harder, hear more, ask more, engage more, and want more from each sitter more than the one before. I recognize that each experience I have with an individual could be my last.


Some people are coming out of the lockdown/time quarantined feeling depressed, aggrieved, and empty and untethered to anything. I have found more of a core to my entire work experience, and it makes me want to consider working with photography in a fine art matter, which I would’ve never had the strength or courage to do before this.


Patrick, a horse hauler, Old Field Farm (Setauket, New York)


APRIL GORNIK: Instagram both popularizes and makes fast and cheap currency of images. You had mentioned that you had resisted getting them right up on Instagram. Any particular reason, or was it intuitive?


LORI HAWKINS: Who wants to put it on Instagram?



APRIL GORNIK: What would be your preferred venue, post-COVID, to present this work? And at what scale do you see them printed?


LORI HAWKINS: I want the work to be shown where the subjects can experience the project as well as outsiders.


I see a show with prints larger than life.  When working with medium format and large format film, all the details are there.

(All photographs courtesy of Lori Hawkins)



Lori Hawkins

April Gornik




April Gornik is best known for her landscape paintings. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art and many significant private collections. She has been awarded the Lifetime Achievement in the Arts Award from Guild Hall Academy of the Arts and the Award of Excellence for Artistic Contributions to the Fight Against AIDS from amfAR.


All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.