Capture of Covid by a lone photographer
LOS ANGELES – On the last normal night in Hollywood, there was a couple wearing masks. It was new enough that I took a picture of it. I had no idea that they would be all of us soon.
It was March 9, 2020, and the premiere of Disney’s live-action “Mulan” brought a packed red carpet to the Dolby Theater on Hollywood Boulevard where, as an entertainment photographer for The Associated Press, I had filmed the Oscars four weeks earlier. Stars posed up close with large groups of fans to fall in love with dozens of photographers.
A year has passed. Nothing like this has happened since.
Two nights later, Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, two people I had shot dead often, announced they had been diagnosed with coronavirus, putting a familiar face on the growing pandemic. The entertainment industry, along with most of the United States, would shut down within days.
I worried not only about doing my job, but whether I would even keep it. I was nonsense: an entertainment photographer in an age without entertainment.
Yet in his place, the story was happening. And what photographer doesn’t dream of capturing that?
So for weeks I wandered the once crowded streets, photographing the eerie emptiness of Rodeo Drive and a Hollywood Boulevard that was suddenly austere and desolate.
As spring turned into summer, some forms of entertainment began to emerge. I have turned amateur violinists and pianists playing for neighbors from their backyards. I have shot movie previews at the wheel, concerts at the wheel, charity galas at the wheel.
I found that the work was sometimes better despite the gloomy circumstances. Instead of having to shoot in a jostled mosh pit of 40 or 50 photographers, I could move around freely and take photos from any angle without anyone screaming in my ears or using my shoulder as a tripod.
The portraits of celebrities were fewer, but better. I shot in new and natural spaces, freed from the soulless, sanitized hotel rooms I was usually forced into. I shot singer Jason Mraz on his casual rug where he grows coffee beans. I shot actor Ciara Bravo on a bike path with colorful murals.
Gallery: 2020 Behind the lens
At the Emmy Awards in September, I had to stand outside and shoot the cars of the few attendees in person. I had Tracee Ellis Ross from “Black-ish” having her nose cleaned up in a picture that defines the moment.
At the Billboard Music Awards in October, I was finally back at the Dolby Theater, trying to capture the surreal scene of En Vogue playing “Free Your Mind” to a nobody audience.
At the Grammy Awards in March, I got to photograph a small crowd that included Beyonce and Taylor Swift, their faces unmatched even in masks.
This year’s Oscars were awarded as the number of vaccines rose, cases declined and things started to feel normal. Yet it would be by far the strangest and scariest day of my professional life. The pandemic prompted the Oscars to only allow the AP to film the arrivals and the winners to share with the rest of the media. This meant that I, and I alone, took photos for most of the media on Earth.
AP photographers are used to major pressure, but that was another level. What if I had a bad day? What if the camera breaks? I made a backup.
The sun kept disappearing behind the clouds and reappearing at Union Station in Los Angeles, the special venue for this year’s Oscars, and I had to fight for the right light.
In the hours leading up to the show, I toured non-stop. I had to take wide shots and full length photos, photos of the head and details – not to mention zooming in on the jewelry. The real-time eyes of my AP editing team were a must.
And the result, thank goodness, was a photographer’s dream. Halle Berry wore a magenta robe that she kept lifting and changing shape. Carey Mulligan had a spectacular flowing gold dress that looked great on camera.
As I sat at home on Monday, watching the media slideshows that said “Chris Pizzello” under almost all the pictures, text messages started pouring in from the photographers who were usually my competition. They congratulated me.
It was very rewarding. And I hope I can never do it again.