When the pandemic came to Europe and travel ground to a halt, many artists found themselves confronting this new reality and discovering how it would affect their work. For one photographer in town, it led to a deeper exploration of the city, photographing Life Behind the Travel Ban with a series of vintage lenses manufactured in Soviet Russia. These old lenses afford a special texture to the photographs, and it was through this sort of retro, sort of modern point of view, that Gretchen Kessler snapped the shutter.

Gretchen Kessler is a well-known photographer here at We Love Budapest, contributing her talents to many of the articles and videos published on the site. It comes as no surprise then that when the times got tough, Gretchen got creative, and her latest series “Pandemic Budapest: Photos from behind the travel ban” is an artistic perspective on the restrictions keeping the world at bay.

“The series grew naturally out of a couple recent purchases I made,” explains Gretchen, an American native who moved to Budapest a year before the coronavirus manifested. “I found some old Soviet lenses for sale on the second-hand marketplace. They were cheap, and abundant, so I bought a couple for fun. What I didn’t expect was how nostalgic the images came out – these lenses imbue such a sense of personality and age, it really feels like the past is speaking through them.”

The title of the series, “Photos from behind the travel ban,” is a direct reference to the pandemic, but also a nod to Hungary’s Communist past, when visitors would come here to peak behind the Iron Curtain. “Using these lenses to photograph the strange times around us, I just felt a connection to it all,” Gretchen says.

Gretchen’s most recent purchases include a Vivitar 135 and Industrar 50-2, manufactured in East Germany and the USSR, respectively. “I also found someone selling broken old cameras for 2,000 forints,” Gretchen adds, “and there was a fully functional Industrar 26M 52mm on one, manufactured in Soviet Russia. I’m waiting for an adapter to come in so I can test it. These old lenses are hit and miss – sometimes you get a real treasure but you don’t know until you’ve put it on the camera.” 

The lenses sell for as low as 5,000-15,000 forints, and are obviously completely analogue, which is one factor for the discount. “Well, people are a little lazy,” says Gretchen with a smile. “It’s easier to shoot on a lens with a zoom and automatic focus, but if you don’t mind the extra work, these lenses can be really rewarding.”

The photo series takes us around Budapest’s VIII District, where Gretchen lives, along the riverbank and through some of the city’s busiest thoroughfares. “I wanted to capture the emptiness of the city, but also show the ordinary life of civilians, and little, unobserved moments in this place where we all live,” says Gretchen.

The series is posted on Gretchen’s website, where she goes into more details on the story behind each picture, and the lens it was shot on. Those interested in following her work can check out her Facebook and Instagram accounts.