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Life & Arts

Austin Photographer Finds 'Love, Fulfillment And Connection' Capturing Pandemic Portraits Of Local Musicians

LaurenZoeBrunoportrait
Ismael Quintanilla III
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Lauren Zoe Bruno is one of the Austin musicians Ismael Quintanilla III photographed and featured in his book "I Am Here All Day."

Austin-based photographer Ismael Quintanilla III wanted to show how the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically affected local musicians. But the endeavor wound up pretty dramatically affecting him, too.

Quintanilla usually takes photos of musicians performing live. But when the pandemic hit, he pivoted to photographing musicians where they were — which was mostly at home.

He took portraits of 138 musicians between March and August of 2020. He also asked them to share their stories of the ups and downs of pandemic life. I Am Here All Day is the book that resulted from that work.

Quintanilla didn't necessarily know his project would lead to a book. He had other, less tangible aspirations. He went into the work with what he calls "an emotional intention" to "experience love, fulfillment and connection."

As Quintanilla sees it, "love and art are very similar." He said pursuing these portraits and stories allowed him "to create something from scratch and [fall] in love with the idea of being an artist."

The intimacy of photographing musicians in their homes, rather than at live shows, allowed him to get to know the artists better. And they did not hold back.

"People were just open and vulnerable," Quintanilla said, "or they were just going through intense emotions."

Proceeds from the sale of ​I Am Here All Day support local nonprofits that help out musicians like HAAM, the SIMS Foundation and the Red River Cultural District’s Banding Together ATX grant program.

Listen to the interview above or read the transcript below for more on how the project unfolded, and to hear how the musicians' pandemic stories helped Quintanilla process his own feelings about what was happening.

This transcript has been edited lightly for clarity:

KUT's Jennifer Stayton: Why did you want to take photos of Austin musicians in their homes during the pandemic?

Ismael Quintanilla, III: I set up an emotional intention at the beginning. I told myself, regardless of how this project goes, regardless of what it creates or the experience that I'll go through, I wanted to experience love, fulfillment and connection. Those are really, really important for me, and I felt that if I didn't work on them during the pandemic, it was something that I was going to start losing touch with.

So for me, I love the aspect of live shows and music, but for me it’s always been being part of the community. For me, I met a lot of people that I hadn't talked to before — that I may have had the opportunity to photograph on stage but never really had a conversation with.

IsmaelQuintanillaIII
Ismael Quintanilla III
Austin-based photographer Ismael Quintanilla III says he learned a lot about himself while taking the portraits of Austin musicians and gathering their stories during the first few months of the pandemic.

As a photographer, I had the opportunity to grow so much doing portraits because I did it in such an intense and massive level that my skill grew exponentially in the sense that doing something over and over and over again — it just continued growing and growing and growing with it.

You met your emotional intention of love, fulfillment and connection from this project, it sounds like.

Quintanilla: Yeah, totally. I got to talk to a lot of people and at the same time hear their stories. When it comes to fulfillment, just being able to grab the book with my hands and flip through the pages feels so good. And [I feel] lot of fulfillment in the sense that I'm getting ready to make the first set of donations to all these different charities. That for me is just one of the best feelings: that I'm able to help the community because I had the help of so many people.

For me, love and art are very similar. And just being able to create something from scratch and falling in love with the idea of being an artist and really diving in and living the artist way.

You mentioned your own professional growth from this project and taking portrait after portrait after portrait. Pre-pandemic, you photographed a lot of live music, a lot of live shows, and also have done photography for brands in Austin. Is there something different about taking a portrait than the other kinds of photography you've done?

For me, a portrait is a more intimate way to get to know somebody. I think live music is really, really intense and really, really quick, and sometimes, especially a lot of touring bands, I don’t necessarily get to connect with them. I just get to photograph them.

And portrait — it just depends on so many things. On a personal level, I think the interaction with people that I get to take portraits of depends a lot on how I show up. Every portrait session, I get to know myself a little bit more and at the same time get to know the person a little bit more.

At least for me, taking a portrait, especially in the way it was done during the pandemic, people were just open and vulnerable, or they were just going through intense emotions. And for me, I was able to just make a space for all of that and just observe and very much honor what people were feeling.

You said you tend to learn about yourself when you're taking portraits of other people. I'm curious if you learned anything in particular about yourself in taking all of the many portraits you took for this project.

I found myself having a lot of fear and insecurity through making the whole project. Not knowing and being in a place of uncertainty. First of all, I'm going to a house that I didn't know with somebody that I might not necessarily know either. And I found myself with this sense of fear as I was going, and eventually I became more accustomed to that fear. And I was able to understand these emotions that were inside me.

At the same time, I was able to learn a lot about myself. When people were telling me the stories of how they were dealing with the pandemic, sometimes, I was going through the same thing, and listening to their stories helped me understand the situation for myself, just from a different point of view. Sometimes listening to my own thoughts is really hard to relate to life. But if I'm able to listen to somebody else, I’m sometimes able to get the message a little bit easier.

Got a tip? Email Jennifer Stayton at jstayton@kut.org. Follow her on Twitter @jenstayton

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