The Lawrence community and its response to the COVID-19 pandemic are the focus of a new collection of images published this fall by local photographer Jeff Burkhead.
Our Pandemic Year in Photos (Imperium, 2021) is a limited-edition coffee table book filled with hundreds of images telling tales of love, strength and resilience. Observations and essays penned by locals punctuate the collection and tie together the book’s message of hope.
Burkhead, who serves as communications manager at Bert Nash Community Mental Health Center and also runs Backstory Photography, said the project didn’t begin as a book, but as a documentation of things seen during walks with his wife, Jennifer, as the shutdown began in March 2020.
He said his photos eventually expanded beyond the neighborhood as the community struggled to adapt to a new way of life that included not only the lockdown, but also protests and political upheaval.
“I was taking pictures of people on their porches or drive-by birthday celebrations, and people outside wearing masks,” Burkhead said. “But there was a lot happening in the world with the election and social justice issues — there’s a lot of those things in the book as well.”
Burkhead will be signing copies of the book from 9 a.m. to noon Saturday, Dec. 18, at the Lumberyard Arts Center in Baldwin City, and from 5 to 7 p.m. Tuesday, Dec. 21, at the Cider Gallery, 810 Pennsylvania St. in Lawrence.
The book, which is being sold locally at The Raven Book Store and at The Nook in Baldwin, is also currently part of an interactive exhibit running through December at the Lawrence Public Library that gives patrons an opportunity to write their own experience on a postcard to be shared.
Burkhead pointed out that the use of “our” in the book’s title is intentional. Each person or family approached lockdown in a unique way, but the book illustrates that as a community, the experience seemed to underscore how people found new ways to support one another.
Curtis Marsh, associate director of development at KU Endowment, is featured in the book with his son, Carson. Marsh said the book highlighted how much he came to depend on walks through his neighborhood as a simple way to relieve the solitude of lockdown.
“I could safely greet neighbors on their porches or across the street,” he said. “We could commiserate and console. Jeff’s book reminds me that we got through those times by supporting one another while remaining careful and safe.”
It was during one of Burkhead’s walks that he photographed renowned KU professor and political analyst Burdett Loomis, who died in September 2021. At the time, Burkhead told Loomis how much he appreciated his work, and later Loomis wrote one of the short essays included in the book. Burkhead said he was grateful to have had that chance encounter.
“With Burdett’s passing, I was even more honored to have his photo in the book,” he said. “None of us knew how life would change. It felt like one of those meant-to-be things.”
Realtor and writer Tom Harper detailed a chronology of the pandemic from the initial lockdown in March 2020 to the uncertainty that remained in March 2021. He said although many people took photos and shared them on social media, the book provided a tactile reference for the Lawrence community and a validation of our shared experiences.
“This book is and will be a historic resource for our community,” Harper said. “Lawrence is such a small town that one can’t help but see friends or at the very least acquaintances. I think Jeff captured the essence of Lawrence in a masterful way.”
Burkhead acknowledged that while the book was in production over the summer, there was a sense that the world might be coming out of the pandemic. He said he even mentioned to his wife that he wondered whether people would forget what they’d been through and not be interested in the book.
“As we all know now, the pandemic just kept going,” Burkhead said. “We’re still experiencing it. The book is a tribute to all of us.”