Pittsburgh ‘porchraits’: The family photo you can’t get out of

The year is 2020 and the front porch is the new outer edge of American life. 

Holed up in our homes during an historic pandemic, fresh air is now at a premium, open space — even just a sliver of it — newly prized.  

Enter porch picnics, porch talks, porch songs, porch yoga, and the front porch family portrait, a growing photographic movement to capture us in our new natural state — standing in our shrunken worlds surrounded by the only people we’re allowed to share them with.

We talked with photographer Pati Livengood of Harrison City about her Pittsburgh-area “porchraits” — like Dust Bowl family photos only with color, smiles, toilet paper props, and signs of boredom.

The Reyes family: Chris, Brianne, Carter, Hayden, Macen, and Madex. (📸: Pati Livengood)

Photos like Pati’s don’t capture the anxiety of the moment we’re living in. Mostly they’re intended as a respite from all that. But they capture the surrealness and the family folklore as it’s happening. (You can see all of her photos here and Pittsburgh porchraits from local photographer Anita Buzzy Prentiss here.)

Pati is separated from her own children by a continent, and her business — deemed non-essential by the state — has been sidelined.

“So since I can’t have a family photo now, I want other people to have it,” she explained by phone. “I’m helping people remember this crazy time in their lives.”

The Sipe family: Lauren, Gianna, Rick, and Ian. (📸: Pati Livengood)

Here’s what she told us en route to an afternoon session this week. We talked about the challenges of a socially distant photo shoot, documenting the lighter side of a crisis, why she’s waived her usual fees, and the silver lining some families are finding in lockdown. 

The interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

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The Incline: Where did this ‘porchrait’ idea come from? 

Pati: I belong to a photographers association and someone posted: ‘Through such a horrible time, what can we do to spread kindness and happiness?’ And a photographer friend of mine was doing this type of project in Massachusetts and I thought ‘Why not here?’  

The Incline: Why do people want these photos? 

Pati: It’s normally hard to get people together for family portraits. Lots of people say this is the COVID-19 portrait and that they’ll always remember this stage of their life. So they’re using it to remind their children what they went through.  

The Kendall family: Georgia, Olivia, Abby, and Kevin. (📸: Pati Livengood)

The Incline: How is your own family? 

Pati: My kids live in Utah and Washington state, so I can’t see them now and it saddens me. I’m just sad that my grandbaby turned one, and I’m missing her first birthday. I’m sad and keeping busy making everyone else happy. 

The Incline: How many of these photos have you done? 

Pati: I put a callout on Facebook to a lot of my clients, and the first day I had 109 people respond. I’ve done 105 of these since mid-March, since right before they told us to stay inside. 

The Graves family: Amanda, Leigh, Matt, Milly (the dog), Alison, and Anna. (📸: Pati Livengood)

The Incline: So you’ve continued to do these under the new guidelines? 

Pati: Yes. We are 10 to 12 feet away. I do not touch anybody. I disinfect the equipment every day. My husband drives and I say ‘Let’s go here’ and he’ll stop. I grab the camera and we shoot from the driveway. I text people to come outside, and within five minutes they come out. I’m talking to them from a distance the whole time. We’re trying to abide by the rules. I email them the photos so I am not touching anything and they have the right to do whatever they want with the photos. 

The Incline: Are you charging? 

Pati: No. I’m not taking any money. I’m asking everybody to just pay it forward to someone who needs it. Like, the food banks need help. (Editor’s note: Here’s where to donate to the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank and the Westmoreland County Food Bank in Pati’s area.)

The Incline: Where have you taken photos so far? 

Pati: In my area — Harrison City, North Huntingdon, Trafford, Jeanette, Greensburg. 

The Incline: How does this situation seem to be affecting the families?  

Pati: I know my kids were in three different sports so it was hard to get the crew together and so I’m touched to see parents and kids all together now. I think people realized their families were so busy and going in so many directions. And all of a sudden they’re together and they want to capture that and they have time now to do that. They realize these relationships and the closeness of family are really important. That’s what I’ve seen and it’s been beautiful. 

The Incline: This lockdown will continue. How long do you expect this project to last? 

Pati: I have no business right now. Everything is canceled — weddings, graduations. So I’ll keep going with this as long as I can. We’ve done 105 so far in just a couple of weeks. But I don’t have a number or goal in mind. I just want to keep doing it until business is back. The end goal is to do this until things go back to normal.

Updated: 11:25 a.m. April 10