Photographers Rickett & Sones’ new series “Self Contained” captures quarantined Los Angeles in a metaphoric (and literal!) bubble.
Quarantine has left us all feeling increasingly isolated and self-contained. Shortly after it began, photographer duo Sonia Oñate Rickett and Ryan Rickett aka Rickett & Sones responded to this sense of unease and frustration by making portraits of their friends in California, framed inside reflective glass bubbles. The couple pairs each portrait with questions about living under quarantine and what each person is doing to maintain their sanity. Their subjects include the diverse cultures and professions that make up Los Angeles.
While Rickett & Sones’ portraits and people are real, the bubbles are virtual. After the initial shoot, they create realistic, painstakingly crafted 3D bubbles with reflections and refractions that look like the real thing. Far from a one-liner or technological trick, Rickett & Sones’ photos go deep. They speak to our shared and incredibly varied experiences of social isolation, with a healthy dose of humor and optimism.
We spoke with Rickett & Sones to learn more about their experience, the process behind their work, and how they’re holding up.
The Luupe: How did the idea come about?
Rickett & Sones: A month into quarantine, we started becoming very restless due to very obvious reasons but mainly because we had no creative outlet. We spent a few nights racking our brain, trying to think of how we could shoot a portrait series that captured the somber tone of the times yet also felt light-hearted and optimistic. During this time Ryan was also teaching himself to use 3D modeling software and he was very eager to flex his new skills. After a few brainstorming sessions we came up with the glass bubble concept and the “Self-Contained” series was born.
The Luupe: What was the first photo you took for this series?
Rickett & Sones: We weren’t totally sure we could render a realistic bubble at this point so we did a test run. We wrangled the kids, set up a few strobes, set the camera to self-timer, and took the very first photo of the series— our family photo.
The Luupe: How did you choose your subjects?
Rickett & Sones: We started by shooting our closest friends and neighbors. We then started reaching out to friends of friends, then friends of friends of friends, and so on. Our aim was to photograph a diverse sampling of people so we cast a wide net.
The Luupe: Why are the mini-interviews important to the series?
RIckett & Sones: The mini-interviews were a way to give our subjects a voice and add dimension to the project. We felt our audience would connect with the images more deeply if they knew a little bit about the people in the photographs.
The Luupe: Were there any surprising or especially moving responses to the interviews?
Rickett & Sones: We loved receiving the answers to the questions. Every time we would see the email come through we would both huddle around the computer and read the answers together. We had some very insightful responses that really resonated with us, for instance:
WHAT ARE YOU MOST OPTIMISTIC ABOUT IN THE NEW WORLD?
@giuseppigranfinale & @mismol2 responded: “If you look back at historically difficult times in human history, dark times typically precede advents of big evolutionary changes. We’re optimistic that the societal trauma we are all currently a part of will yield progress — emotional, racial, economic, and political growth. We still believe in the beauty and caring aspects of our species. But we all need to take action to effect changes”
Some were a much-needed dose of levity:
WHO ARE YOU?
Well I’m just a modern guy. Of course, I’ve quarantined alone before. I take a freaky pseudonym, like “The Gathering Storm” or “The Scourge of God.” With my leather chaps. And my cattle prod. But that’s just for terrorizing neighbors.
This response to WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN DOING TO KEEP YOUR SANITY? was great:
“Yeah, that ship sailed a while ago.
The Luupe: Yes! We remember seeing that in your IG feed.
One of the most fascinating pieces of this project is the bright LA light – a kind of counter or antidote to the collective dreary, doomed vibes. Was this on your mind as you conceived and worked on the project?
Rickett & Sones: Love that you caught that because, to be honest, we hadn’t thought of that. It is sunny all year here, we’ve kinda forgotten that the rest of the world actually has seasons.
The Luupe: Much of our team is based in New York City, London, and Seattle, so we live for the LA light! Did making this work give you a new perspective on quarantine, social isolation/ this current surreal moment?
Rickett & Sones: We definitely feel a newfound appreciation for community. The biggest take away is that although we are all having a shared experience, every single person was interpreting it in their own way.
The Luupe: This work is about quarantine, it feels like it’s treading on longer-term metaphors for social isolating, distance, enclosure… what do you think?
Rickett & Sones: Everyone has a different experience with quarantine. For some, this is the best time of their life, while others are truly suffering. The bubble is definitely a metaphor for being trapped and isolated, for better or for worse.
The Luupe: When we first saw photos from this series, we honestly thought you had constructed a real-life bubble. We were wrong! Can you speak a bit about the process behind creating the virtual bubbles?
Rickett & Sones: First, we set up our gear and shoot the portrait and some clean plates of the background. Then Ryan shoots numerous HDR plates from the perspective of the bubble, to be stitched into a 360º spherical image later. In post, we separate the portrait from the background and bring both elements over to a 3D space where Ryan builds a glass bubble and places it over the subject, then lights it digitally according to how we lit the scene in real life.
The 360º spherical is then projected onto a sky sphere over the bubble for real-life reflections. Other CG elements are added as well, depending on the narrative (broken glass, fire, and smoke, etc). Finally, the scene is rendered and handed back to Sonia for the final retouching magic. Whew!
The Luupe: How are you working with your subjects, directing them, posing them with objects, etc?
Rickett & Sones: We tell all our subjects that we are trying to capture the essence of their unique post-covid experience. We encourage them to dress in their everyday clothes and incorporate props that tell the story of their day-to-day. We try not to give them much more direction than that in order to achieve a more candid vibe.
The Luupe: Beyond this project, how has quarantine impacted your work as photographers?
Rickett & Sones: Well, we aren’t working as much these days, but we don’t see that as a negative thing. We have been using this time to dive headfirst into creative endeavors that ideally expand our horizons and will lead to new opportunities.