Local photographer documents Marfa locals sheltering in place

The Grajeda family poses for a portrait for a series documenting life in the season of social-distancing. Photo by Lesley Villareal

MARFA — Lesley Villareal says photographing is what she knows, so when a shelter-in-place was ordered in Marfa, she decided to document the moment in time through her camera. The photographer has now shot over 50 photos in a series of locals in front of their homes during the global pandemic.

Villareal is the owner of Shy Gallery, a photography gallery on Highland that features her work in Marfa. But on March 14 she closed its doors to weather coronavirus, and is unsure of when the gallery will return. With her business closed, she says she decided to photograph the experience “when things started getting real.”

“I had closed the gallery – and was freaking out of course – and was trying to think about what I could do creative-wise to keep myself busy. I was thinking I’d take portraits of people in front of their house,” she says. “My original idea was to photograph maybe the essential businesses, but I was trying to figure out how to do it all safely.”

Safety is something Villareal has had to weigh again and again throughout the virus. At one point this month, she almost dropped the project entirely, as similar projects have stirred controversy over health and safety in the photography community. She says the complaints are that people are leaving their home for something nonessential, so it sets a bad example.

“I think where we live in Marfa is a little different. We’re not piled on top of each other here,” the photographer explained. “I can go walk my dogs, have my camera on me and photograph people easily here.” It helps that she’s shooting her subjects from across their streets and yards, 20 to 30 feet away.

“I wanted to make sure I was doing it right, doing it safe and had permission,” she says. So she contacted the city and spoke with a council member and other officials, who gave her the go ahead to continue the project.

As for the photos themselves, Villareal didn’t want to capture the sadness or fear of coronavirus. Instead, the artist is capturing “people that are sheltering-in-place and are in somewhat good spirits and happy to be with their loved ones or dogs or cat or whoever they’re sheltering at home with.”

The photographer –– who has photographed and lived in Marfa for over 12 years –– thinks she’ll be shooting for another week, hoping to get portraits of some of the older, local Marfa natives. “I really want to photograph local locals, the older generation. I would also like the younger generations of locals and people with families,” she says.

And what will become of the 50 or more photos? “When I started it I didn’t think about what I’d do with it. Now I’ve had people ask me if I’d make a book. It’s something I’d think about in the future. I don’t know anything about making books,” she laughs. “Or I’d think about showing it during Chinati Weekend if my gallery is still here, or if anything like that is still happening.”

“I think it’s important to capture what’s going on,” Villareal says. “Think about the pictures of the Depression. You can think of iconic images throughout history that we know, and it’s important to document it because it’s how we tell the story later. Plus I love this town, so it’s been really fun to go say hi to everybody, even if I’m yelling across the street.”

“It’s a crazy, crazy time in history,” Villareal reflects, adding, “This is the only thing I know how to do, this is my job, and I’ve been doing it for almost 20 years. What else would I do right now?”