An exploration of the seven cardinal sins in the year of COVID-19.

In 1558, Pieter Breughel (The Elder) created a series of engravings depicting the seven cardinal sins. Though his work was an allegorical conception of the times, Breughel asserted the morality of his strict Catholic environs through a comic lens. His characters in the series are exaggerated, often wildly so, and they are set upon by all manner of circumstance in their surroundings. Nearly five hundred years later, we find ourselves out of balance and perspective as we grapple with a pandemic rarely experienced by currently-living generations—especially so in our well-off Western enclaves. Housebound, it led to a lot of time for introspection and reading on my part, and it led me to quest for an updated comedic take on the cardinal sins, reflective of the present zeitgeist.

ANNUS COVIDENSIS MMXX could only be a series of self-portraits, for as a portrait photographer, how ironic it is that quarantine robs me of the very thing that defines my efforts: subjects. But this time of isolation also affords me the opportunity to reëxamine the traditional concept of the cardinal sins in my self-imagined allegories. Are only the manifestations of the sins updated, or do the core concepts also change with the centuries that pass? I leave that for the viewer to contemplate. In homage to Breughel, I have used his captions from the engravings in their unaltered Latin on my images, hoping to summon a chuckle as surely his engravings must have, too.

– 26 December, 2020


What Bezosian plunder arrives on your doorstep to keep the larder stocked? How easy it has become to make real, with the swipe of a finger, our every desire’s appearance on the front porch. In creating Greed I used the cold weather to advantage by leaving open the main door and letting the storm door fog over to enhance the glow of a backlighting strobe. A high main light just slightly camera right lit the stoop and the packaging, while significant extra glow and the Amazon app on the phone were added in post-production. I used my Sony Zeiss Vario-Tessar at 16mm to be able to capture the scene with a tall vertical perspective.


Day after day in the same environs makes keeping up with the daily chores especially challenging. The siren song of the sofa, the enshrouding light of the large screen, the warmth of a fire, all conspire. Does it really matter if you don’t vacuum when no guests can come over to watch the game? For whom is the upkeep, really? I again used the Vario-Tessar at its widest to capture the span from couch to television. A single overhead light from the deep parabolic strobe reflector was balanced with ambient light to create the reclining chiaroscuro scene. Many dodge-and-burn layers in Photoshop to lead the eye around the room.


A diaphanous robe, backlit by the cool light spilling out of the…clothes dryer? Who could resist such temptation! I wanted to achieve a long perspective in this image, leading the viewer in from an exaggerated foreground to the subject of interest receding into the mysterious darkness of the laundry. But as farcical as the setting may be in the context of lust, it illustrates the chore of keeping a relationship fresh and enduring when endless time is spent together with relatively few distractions and outside interactions. For all the challenge, surviving the time of quarantine with my beautiful wife is an enduring source of comfort. This scene was one of the more challenging of the series to produce. There are three main images composited together for it. The base background, me at the top of the stairs, and Leigh in the laundry were all lit and shot separately, then blended in post-production to achieve the dramatic feeling. I lit myself on the stairs with the deep parabolic reflector, and the backlight for Leigh’s robe was a single strobe hidden in the dryer. The camera stayed locked down for all exposures.


No animals were harmed in the making of this photograph! Our dear cat, Sakame, was a very good sport about the whole thing, and needed only a single, brief, gentle, lift by the scruff to complete her participation in one take. To be fair, she’s not one that would knock over, or really even care about, a glass of milk. But who hasn’t lost their temper at the smallest of things during our extended struggle with COVID-19? Between the completely inept management of the pandemic by our government (sic), to the endless barrage of difficult news and worse statistics, it frayed the nerves and quickened our wrath. This actually proved to be one of the simpler images of the series to capture. It was a single light setup, with only a couple of images for exposure blending in post. A main softbox lit the scene, with blends of ambient exposure to fill in detail.


All the gear in this image, with the obvious exception of the mask, I would have worn in the stadium this year at various games as I cheered on my beloved Minnesota United FC. But alas, The Loons played to empty seats, when they played at all. And so what is pride when there is no one to see it? Is it purely the corruption of the internal self that suffers with pride when nobody is there to witness your boast? I wanted this image to be the most traditional of studio portrait setups, just adorning the background with my stadium scarves draped over a backdrop holder. A single main large parabolic softbox high overhead camera right, a large fill card camera left, and a backlight to wash the scarves in diffused glow. I adjusted the exposure and glow on the phone in post, though the actual Loons app was, in fact, displayed at capture. COYL! I knew what I wanted for this setup, but I confess that I did actually have to order the face mask from the MLS online store just for the shot. With Allianz Field empty for games, I had not had a chance to wear an actual Loons mask out in public. Yet.


This was the most challenging photo for this series, at least emotionally. The technical aspects of shooting were comparatively easy and straight-forward. Lit by a single large softbox camera left, and a small strobe directly behind me on the countertop. Post-production, however, was another matter. I added significant weight to me in Photoshop; the belly, the moobs, thick neck … not mine. I went for realism, to not be cartoonish, enough to make a viewer who knows me wonder. I realize full well that’s probably an approach that could cause consternation for some. But I’m not ‘body shaming’ here, nor making light of others’ struggles with calories. For some, the pandemic has been an opportunity for more working out, more exercise. For me, as an active cyclist whose most frequent rides are in groups, it’s been quite something else. I have clearly lost condition. Gained some weight, sure. But the self-perception of that change is what my image represents. It’s too easy, when housebound, to go to the kitchen. Food is always at hand, unlike when working in an office setting. What may have been a mid-afternoon trip to the coffee machine at work, is sometimes supplanted by more extensive browsing. And while we walk many miles consistently each week, it’s not the same as my previous high intensity cycling. I’m out of peak condition. At least recognition is the first step towards amelioration.


Of this entire series, the image of envy was the most creatively difficult, both conceptually as well as in execution. I struggled to conceive of how to represent envy in the context of COVID, working and ultimately discarding many potential scenarios. I thought about what, truly, I’m envious of presently, and it was while watching a television program featuring travel that the thought struck me that some people are still venturing out. To the best of my recollection, 2020 is the first year in my adult life that I’ve not been on an airplane even once. Many I know have taken that risk, and so far, (mostly) successfully. But I am wary. As a cancer survivor, it’s likely my immune system isn’t normal, even if it has recently served me well, apparently. But I’m not up for the risk; the fall is too great. So I thought of looking longingly out at people loading up suitcases to go somewhere. Executing the image was another matter. I liked the idea of using the striped lighting from blinds, but the shot proved technically challenging. It’s a composite of five different images: me, the blinds and window, the nearest car, two of my daughters with the suitcase, and the interior lighting in the car were all shot separately. Compositing the outside imagery through the blinds was, ah, tedious. But in the end, I believe the image captures my conception of the scene, and the lighting blend works, balancing the warmer interior hues with the cool outside light.

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John Rome
2020-12-27 at 16:56


2020-12-28 at 18:48

supremely entertaining through and through. cheers to you for setting an example for all who recognize that, despite any ‘sins’ that may seep in through the cracks of covid isolation, our greatest defense, as always, is our creativity. yours may be hard to match but we all have something itching to get out, which will only infect others in the best possible way.

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