This Photographer Is Taking Touching Portraits of His Creative Neighbors Hunkered Down in the Catskill Mountains—All Safely From Six Feet Away
Casey Kelbaugh, a chronicler of the New York art world, fixes his lens on a small mountain community.
Casey Kelbaugh, a chronicler of the New York art world, fixes his lens on a small mountain community.
Before authorities put New York on lockdown, photographer Casey Kelbaugh fled Manhattan for his house in the hamlet of Lanesville, New York, a small community stretched out alongside Stony Clove Creek in the Catskill Mountains. As New York City was becoming the global epicenter of the coronavirus, this valley, just two hours away, seemed a world apart.
Kelbaugh has made a living for years shooting art-world happenings like the Venice Biennale and Frieze Los Angeles for outlets including the New York Times and Artnet News. Now hunkered down in Lanesville, he spent the first few weeks waving to his neighbors—a mix of creative types and longtime locals—from his Subaru.
Before long, he also began photographing and interviewing them—poets and fashion editors, chefs and artists, carpenters and energy healers—all from six feet away. The confined framework, he found, made for the ideal way to capture a time of change in the Catskills, a region that for centuries has been a refuge for creatives of all kinds.
Here, Kelbaugh shares a selection of the images—part of a project he calls Six Feet Away—with Artnet News, offering a vivid portrait of a rural community wading through a global pandemic.
Being out of school is lit. I hate school. A lot of people say they miss it, I don’t. I’m hitting up different fishing holes, riding my ATV, working on my car all day. There’s a lot of homework, but I just do what I have to. And you get to do it whenever you want, as long as you turn it in on time.
I think this whole thing is going to push people to get back to the basics, the land and strip away all the politics and capitalism. Worst-case scenario is we go to war with China or have or a second civil war.
I’m in close contact with a bunch of family members in China and while we only have 20,000 cases right now, I really think it’s gonna hit us a lot harder in America. Probably a combination of both ignorance and arrogance.
I think we should start doing this every year for three months. Let everything slow down so we all get a break. No traffic, no pollution, no deadlines, no distractions—just isolation and time to get your work done.
What we are experiencing is a dress rehearsal for climate breakdown. This is the planet signaling that we cannot continue this way. There needs to be a revisioning of how we are on earth—competitive predatory capitalism destroys so much.
This whole thing has really impacted a friend of mine who raises dairy cattle. They had to dump hundreds of gallons of milk because no one would come pick it up for pasteurization. I guess they just didn’t have the staff.
Country people know how to do this. This is their strength. People are cutting up padded bras, vacuum cleaner filters, and old fabric from the attic and making masks out of them.
Work has completely dropped off. Everyone who is up from the city is in their houses, doing the work themselves. They’re working remotely on their computers, so they don’t want others in the house. And my clients also don’t want to spend any money, so they are just doing everything themselves.
I’m definitely feeling the effects—I had to postpone a solo show next month in Woodstock and art fairs are being cancelled. But it will give me time to focus on new work. As an artist, being isolated for long periods of time can be ideal.
When I closed on the house a few weeks before the lockdown, I never expected a crash course in country living. I’m hunkered down with friends, writing remotely for a fashion brands, but mostly just trying to finish this novel.
I do believe that restaurants that were already successful and can weather the storm will come back, but the borderline ones—and the catering industry—will be crushed. It’s a little bit of a purge.
Dating right now is all about FaceTime and Zoom. A woman I’ve been talking to on one of the apps wants to set up a video meeting while we listen to a playlist of her design. It’s nice in a way, because you actually get to know one another.
You get to see the full spectrum of human behavior right now—there are people that are putting themselves at risk to help others and you have people putting others at risk by going on spring break.
We had planned to move up full time in May, but the pandemic kind of forced us up here in mid-March, which has given us time to solidify our intentions. Being in the city and working as artists, everything was so segmented and were only getting one end of the equation. The residency we are creating here at Diamond Notch will be a crossover between art, agriculture, and ecology. This will be place where the overall focus is to understand where things come from. In the city we’re so far removed from the root of anything. Where does food come from? Where do our materials come from? A two by four for has almost nothing to do with a tree.
I was out in Brooklyn last Tuesday and Wednesday nights. On Sunday evening, I came down with a high fever and realized I probably have COVID-19 and need to get myself to isolation immediately. But the worst part is worrying about hospitalization—because there isn’t one anywhere nearby.
The main thing is to keep what you got going on—keep the trucks running. It’s very hard times right now. With the tree work we do, we’re kind of essential because we’re helping people with trees that have fallen on their houses. But the sandblasting has slowed way down and it’s important to find ways to stay busy so you don’t go crazy.
At some point, the numbers just become an abstraction. If I read that diabetes kills 100,000 people a year, I would believe it, even if it’s ten times more or less than that. We lead risky lives to begin with—the cars we drive, the food we consume, and the pills we take. At some point, the people that think they are at low risk, have already recovered or just don’t care are going to get back out there to try and make some cash. They will only be able to keep the wolves at bay for so long.
After 9/11, my husband’s business downtown was closed and we could no longer afford to stay in NYC. We were forced out—we never thought we would leave New York. But this is worse. Not just the uncertainty, but everything that is happening in the world right now much more intense and terrifying than it was after 9/11. It was horrific, but we had a sense of solidarity in the city. We were all taking care of each other, we mourned together. But now we can’t be around the ones we love, because it’s a silent killer and we don’t know who has it.
I’ve had a cough for weeks and every time I cough I’m reminded of this whole thing about it being the “China Virus.” For a few weeks there, the racism that was unleashed became pretty evident—until for better or worse—Italy became the epicenter of the outbreak. Being Japanese-American, it hit a little close to home and I couldn’t help think about internment and other tragic examples in history.
The 1973 oil crisis was the most disruptive thing we had experienced prior to this, but that was pretty lightweight. In America, we’ve basically about complaining about anything that’s inconvenient since World War II.
I have about 85 regular clients on Steinway Street in Astoria. I think most of them will return to me when things normalize, but right now, people aren’t thinking about secondary services such as mine.
We have lost over 30 percent of our work, so we have laid off 30 percent of our staff. It was a lot of neat stuff too, designing new hotels in Austin and Union Square. It’s been hard. We’ve had two rounds of layoffs and I put the third on hold because it was the same day the Paycheck Protection Program passed. But we don’t have any assurances that we will get it yet, so it’s a bit scary. Beyond that, the troubling thing is that so much of our work has become about calibrating social space—how people want to be in relation to one another. Restaurants, clubs, spas, hotels—all of the places where you have a lot of human contact.
Obviously, we’ve been out of school for three or four weeks. My colleagues and I really just miss the kids. Our hearts are just broken for the seniors that don’t get to graduate. Some kids are going home to bad situations or have social and emotional issues, and I’m worried because I don’t get to check in with them everyday.
I left Yonkers almost 40 years ago after I was stabbed in the heart with a knife. Came up here and raised 11 kids in this house. And I’ll tell you what, I don’t trust anything anymore. If I got sick, there’s no way I’d let them take me to the hospital, because they’ll kill you. Why is it that when people stay home, they recover, but when they go in and are put on respirators—they all end up dead?
Finally, people are talking about the issue of New York City people fanning across the area to flee the coronavirus. It’s the recent arrivals that pose a risk to us all. Anyone coming from the global epicenter needs to be wearing face masks and gloves while in public around here.
It’s so hard to be so isolated and so distant right now. And yet there is another kind of connection happening. My online classes are fuller than they ever were for my in-person classes! I’ve had high school friends whom I’ve not seen in 20 years, family members—from all time zones and regions of the country coming together—breathing, moving, feeling less alone, remembering our connection with ourselves and others. Perhaps the livestream classes will remain a part of my weekly offering? Or maybe this will just get the studio and our community through this difficult time period.
I miss the friction of the city—the challenge of daily life. You gotta get there on time. The traffic’s not helping. They don’t have your size. The groceries are heavy. I’m very happy up here, but it can be a little dull.
I’m learning a lot from this land. A pond that is round and perfect doesn’t actually maximize biodiversity; a pond with a lot of edges and inlets has a lot more species. The place where two ecosystems meet has the most biodiversity—where ground animals meet aquatic animals. Our administration seems to be interested in a monoculture. But the idea that the place where a little friction happens—that is really where life is most vibrant, generative, and sustainable.
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