Bret Hart, Sarah Hart, Cass and Cat Walker in Friday Harbor, Washington, where Tanja Hollander has been since March 7. Photos by Tanja Hollader

On Jan. 18, photographer Tanja Hollander flew to Seattle. The trip was meant to be an escape from Maine’s endless winter: She would stay with a friend, and while on the West Coast, arrange a couple of side trips to visit curators in Los Angeles and Portland, Oregon. Hollander had rented out her home in Auburn for the first month; with minimal expenses, she thought she could stretch the trip to two months and booked a return flight for mid-March. That obviously did not work, and now six weeks and a few re-bookings later, she hopes to return to Maine in a week.

From 2011 to 2017, Hollander, who primarily makes portraits, photographed all of her Facebook friends in their homes all over the world. “Are you really my friend?” was the resulting project, presented in its entirety at Mass MoCA, with sections exhibited at the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, at the Portland Museum of Art and internationally. In addition to 430 portraits, the exhibit features images of hundreds of Post-it Notes left for Hollander by her subjects about the meaning of friendship. With coronavirus keeping us apart, Hollander is finding new ways to connect and keep some money coming in, while helping others to do the same.

Self portrait of Hollander from 2016.

Q: You were in Seattle when it became the country’s first coronavirus hotspot. What was that like?

A: I was staying with my close friend Sarah Hart, my old teacher and mentor at Hampshire College. She lives part-time in Seattle and part-time in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island. For the first six weeks I was here, we were going back and forth – two weeks on the island and a week in Seattle. I was on Twitter, and I saw videos coming out of Wuhan of streets being disinfected by guys in Ghostbusters outfits. It was crazy, and felt very far away from us. At the end of February, I went to L.A., and people there were saying, “Oh, it’s coming to the States,” and then, “Oh, look, it’s in Seattle.” When I flew back to Seattle on March 4, things were starting to get really panicky. We left the for the island on March 7. We’ve been here ever since.

Q: Was there a brief window when you could have left?

A: I probably could have gone home after I returned from L.A. and before we left for the island. But I didn’t want to leave Sarah by herself. She’s 76 and had breast cancer, and the radiation scarred her lungs. So she’s right in line to have serious problems.

Q: You didn’t plan to stay on the West Coast for so long. How are you coping financially?

A: A month ago, I was getting cash-strapped and was in pure panic. That’s when I started the pay-what-you-can sale on my website, a sliding scale from 10 percent to 90 percent of my original prices. Now, I’ve done enough sales that I feel sort of OK.

Q: You’ve started using the sale of work on your website to help people in the restaurant industry as well. How did that start?

A: My sister Emma is the general manager of Trina’s Starlite Lounge in Somerville, Massachusetts, and we were FaceTiming and talking about how we were both going to survive this. I said, “Nobody’s going to buy art,” and she said, “Nobody’s eating out.” So I asked her, “What about making your staff into art dealers temporarily? Restaurants have huge social networks; it will be perfect.” It was like milk and cookies.

Emma’s got two restaurants next door to each other: Trina’s and Parlor Sports. Her business partners have another one in Newburyport, the Paddle Inn; we’ve also included their friends at Newburyport’s Vinal Bakery. When you buy an image from my site and mention any of these organizations, 50 percent of the proceeds from the sale will go directly to them.

Q: Do you have plans to expand this to Maine?

A: Yes, I’ve emailed a couple of friends in Maine who own restaurants. And I’ve just started working with Cooking for Community, a collaborative effort based in Portland that raises funds for restaurants in need of work to cook for people in need of food, using locally sourced ingredients. It’s an innovative model that supports restaurants, local food supply chains and people in need, and seemed like a natural fit after piloting the idea with my sister.

Q: I see that you also have a new photographic project based on mail-in ephemera.

A: I had a show in Las Vegas last year that was in part “Are You Really My Friend?” but I also included images of ephemera that I had collected at Mass MoCA. Some of it was everyday-life stuff, like public-transportation cards from all over the world. Then some of it was really thoughtful, heartfelt mementos, like memorial cards that people had obviously been carrying around in their wallets for 10 or 15 years.

These objects that people love, for me, are so beautiful and so meaningful. Right before I came out here I thought, what if I made a thoughtful request for ephemera? I was really interested in whether I could make portraits with it. All the stuff together seemed like a social portrait, a cultural portrait. This is where people get coffee, this is where they eat, this is where they go to the doctor, throughout the world. So I asked a couple of writer friends to send material, because I figured they can write about the experience really well.

I didn’t want to be mid-idea and on the West Coast for maybe a month or two, so I shipped my scanner and all the stuff to Friday Harbor before I left, which I’m now very grateful for. People are sending their ephemera here, and I’m scanning it and sending it back. I love it. I feel like there’s this meaningful connection happening through the process of collaborating with people.

Q: This project must feel prescient for you now with the forced social distancing.

A: I was already getting tired of traveling so much, so I had been thinking, could I just sit in my studio quietly and work, and not have to go anywhere?

I also realized that I was taking for granted traveling into people’s houses and taking their portraits. How could I have known that was suddenly not going to be possible? Most of my income had come from doing portrait commissions or exhibitions, and both of those things are out now, so I feel really lucky that I’ve been able to keep working.

Every day, Hollander takes a “morning coffee spot” photo.

Q: Has your practice changed in other ways?

A: I’m definitely paying more attention, everything has slowed down. I’m also photographing every day, which is rare. Normally, I try to remember to at least do a “morning coffee spot” – photographing what I wake up and see every morning, no matter where I am – but here I’m pretty religious about waking up and walking down to the water and photographing while the light changes.

At first, I was a little leery of posting these beautiful images of my everyday life. Would that be rubbing it in people’s faces in the city, or do they really need this? From the reaction to what I’m posting and emailing, people seem to be really happy to see calm, pretty images.

Q: Are you feeling as calm as the images you’re posting?

A: I guess I don’t feel that emotional up and down that a lot of people are feeling right now. I know what it means to be dirt poor and live so close to the edge – for me, it’s always been up and down. At least as an artist, I know how to be poor and still have a really good life.

Stacey Kors is a longtime arts writer and editor who lives on Peaks Island.


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