Historic England showcases public's photos of lockdown life

Mark Brown Arts correspondent

Images of lockdown England, including one of the busiest places in the world hauntingly stripped of people and noise, are to enter the nation’s historic archive.

Historic England has revealed 200 photographs it has chosen as part of the Picturing Lockdown Collection, a project to capture life over the first week of May.

Related: Picturing lockdown: Historic England's archive of isolation – in pictures

Half of them are photographs taken by the public in response to an appeal. They range from home haircuts to people on their phones in supermarket queues to homemade signs in windows including one that reads: “I’m Really Bored.”

Fifty photographs were commissioned from 10 contemporary artists including Coralie Datta, who focused on people in Leeds, and Polly Braden, who captured an empty City of London.

Braden said cycling into the Square Mile on her hour’s exercise had been an experience of mixed emotions – terrifying that so much money was dripping away but also awe at the epic scale of the emptiness.

“It was just really amazing, like cycling on to a film set before the crew arrives,” she said. “It was really eerie. I don’t think I’ve ever noticed how the new glass buildings fit with the old sandstone. You could see the lines right down to the ground because there are no people or cars.

“It was so quiet and clean and the buildings were standing taller and more prominent than I had ever noticed them before.”

Braden has previously published a book of photographs of the Square Mile so was keen to return. Normally it would have more than 450,000 people commuting there to work.

“At the start of May there was no one there, except for the occasional cleaner or homeless person or security guard. Hardly anyone. It was quite incredible and we are never going to see it like that again.”

In contrast, Datta has focused on people in her photographs of lockdown life in Leeds, including a poignant photograph of a mother and baby son, born two days before lockdown, which means he has only ever seen his parents and hospital staff.

Another image shows three students cheerily using their garden as a gym.

Datta said she was interested in people and how they interact with each other. “I saw an interesting thing happen as soon as lockdown started, particularly in Leeds, that people were much more friendly and out in their gardens a lot more.”

Unusually, everyone she asked if she could take a picture said yes. “A lot of people remain optimistic and the different way of living has brought some positive things. They are doing things they would not normally do.”

Photographing people comes naturally to her, Datta said. “I find photography allows me to be a people-watcher without anyone worrying that you are doing something slightly dodgy.”

The remaining 50 photographs were taken by Historic England’s own photography team.

They will all enter the Historic England archive, which contains records of England’s historic buildings, archaeology and social history.

More than 3,000 photographs were offered by members of the public after a call for submissions. The last time a similar exercise took place was during the second world war.

Claudia Kenyatta, the director of regions at Historic England, said: “The fascinating response to our callout sheds light on our collective and individual experiences of lockdown and provides a snapshot into this unusual time that will be accessible for future generations to see and learn from.”