Local artist uses porch portraits to document families as they are during coronavirus pandemic

Wandering through one Springfield neighborhood after another, Vicki Rulli’s goal is just to show things as they are, right in this moment.

While businesses and people have slowed and many families are home together instead of bustling about in their normal routines, Rulli wants to capture these this time on film.

Rulli and her husband Tom Heaphey own Itinerant Studio in Springfield, where prior to COVID-19, they made prints that they sold business to business and to the design trade. While they create in Springfield, they have showrooms in other parts of the country.

As the pandemic hit, the couple lost business as larger cities they relied upon for sales started closing down. The opened a retail division of their business – ItinerantPrints – but business wasn't booming as COVID-19 changes reached Ohio.

Rulli says her cousin sent her an article about a photographer in Boston doing porch portraits, and at first, she felt too busy focusing on other aspects of her rapidly changing business to take it on.

“I put it off, but it sat in my head,” she says. “And eventually I thought, I’m just going to do this.”

Rulli lives in the Ridgewood nighborhood and decided to start with a simple post on her neighborhood Facebook page saying what streets she’d be walking during a certain chunk of time, and she hoped for the best.

At first, she had about five families reach out, and there was a little bit of a disconnect because of social distancing.

“In this day and age, everyone is used to instant notification,” says Rulli, who let neighbors know she wasn’t coming on their porches to knock on doors when she arrived. “But this was ‘Hey – for two hours you’ll know my general route, but for two hours you’ll just kind of have to look out for me.’”

After that first night, Rulli took a selfie with her telephoto lens and posted it to her neighborhood page, again explaining her plans to take porch portraits.

The next night, she took photos of another dozen families, posted a collage to the neighborhood page and shared how much fun she’d had.

It was after Rulli posted her photos on her personal Facebook page that she started getting messages from families all over the city, interested in having their porch portraits taken also. She ended up creating a Facebook page just for the porch photos to help her keep track of addresses she was getting requests from and to have one collective place to share the images – Springfield PorchPortraits.

She shot photos every evening for a week straight and ended up taking pictures at about 80 different houses across the city.

“I’ve been to Ridgewood West, Hill and Dales, South Fountain, Ridgewood again. Morning shoots and night shoots,” says Rulli, explaining that she’s tried to hit different areas of the city but saying she knows she has many more neighborhoods to visit still.

Rulli's only stipulation is that she stays within Springfield to take porch portraits because she says she knows if she branches out, she’ll have a harder time keeping up with requests.

“It’s been such a joy,” she says. “I get to see people, which is awesome. I get to see friends and meet people in my neighborhood and in the whole city that I never knew before.

 “It’s just so great to meet all these people, and people have these great stories to tell.”

Of the stories she’s heard, some of her favorites are from parents’ whose college-age children are unexpectedly back home because of the pandemic.

“I think parents of college students who are home with them now are the happiest,” Rulli says. “They always say to me, ‘I’m sure they’d rather be at school in their dorm, but I never thought I’d have this time with them here again, and we’re just so thankful,’ and that’s awesome.”

All the photos Rulli takes are free of charge, and she guarantees each family at least one high resolution photo will be emailed to them by the time she finishes up the project.

“To document this time period and be able to in 20 years or in 40 years look back and say, ‘Oh, that’s the house we lived in,’ or ‘That’s my grandmother. She lived through the pandemic,’ that’s what it’s about. I really want this to be a documentary.”

Rulli describes some families who have come out of their homes to have their photos taken still in pajamas. Some unshowered. Some joking about not even knowing what day it is anymore. She says others decided to get dressed up – not because they necessarily cared about being fancy for a photo, but because knowing that they were going to have a photo taken gave them something to look forward to and something to get dressed up for, for the first time in more than a month.

“I just believe strongly in community, and I like the concept of documenting what’s happening in our world – no matter how mundane it might seem,” Rulli says. “We’re on our porches – you can always take a porch portrait, but you can never have a portrait again going through what we’re going through right now.

“When families look back at these, I love the things they’ll remember. Everyone has a different perspective, but there’s also a shared commonality to it.”

Though Rulli says she’s had offers of tips and payment for the photos, she insists she’d rather wait until social gatherings are OK again and have a gallery show to celebrate everyone who participated in her porch portrait project.

In the meantime, however, Rulli and Heaphey have decided that for any porch portrait prints ordered from their business, they will donate a portion of the proceeds to a local food pantry.

“I love community. I grew up in a family that was civically-minded,” Rulli says. “For me, this concept of community is of the collective. Even though we’re all in our own houses, in our own worlds, we’re all going through this together.”

Read more articles by Natalie Driscoll.

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