An Ode to Doorways

Presenting literal isolation in the era of self-isolation

Words: Owain Johnson
Photos: Laura Jones + website

If you’ve scrolled down your Instagram discover page recently, you might have seen quite a few photographers posting doorway portraits. These include the house’s inhabitant(s) posed, framed by the doorway to their abode. Seems like a handy solution to the lack of human muses outside really – “government making you self-isolate? No bother mate, we’ll come to you.” However, this is a handy solution that offers an air of loneliness with each image. The close-up view of a house obscures its full form, becoming opaque negative space, condensing the frame down to the doorway and the person in front of it. This is self-isolation being represented through literal isolation within a frame. Very meta. The doorway cuts off any tangible connection between the outside world and the intimacy of your private sphere.

This is not a new phenomenon in cinema and photography though. Doorways have a long legacy within film: showing the separation literally and figuratively between characters on screen; doors allow us access to someone’s private space. They’re an entrance and an exit, you can walk and see through them, you know, like how doorways are supposed to work. After all, not everything is three layers deep in academic subtext.

Ali in R.W Fassbinder’s 1974 German New Wave classic Angst essen Seele

Yet, because I was a film student, please allow me to start this off hella esoteric. In R.W Fassbinder’s 1974 German New Wave classic Angst essen Seele auf (literally, Fear Eat up Soul), Ali, an immigrant worker, is framed repeatedly in doorways. As an audience, we are encouraged to view him voyeuristically, replicating how 1970s West German society perceived him. He is cut off and separated within the frame as he is an unwelcome member of a racist society, but is also seen from a voyeuristic white gaze that objectifies him as an exotic object. Ali is forced into isolation.

Gone with the Wind; Rhett giving no damns

How about a literal separation between characters? Cinematic classic and problematic bastion of golden age Hollywood: Gone with the Wind has a famous door scene that we all know. As Rhett leaves Scarlett and she begs him to stay, he utters the well-quoted line: “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn”. The now-separated couple are framed by a doorway. We, as an audience, are positioned inside the home looking out on the misty surroundings. As Rhett walks away, we stay inside the home. The doorway acts as the boundary between outside and inside. As such, the doorway acts as the newly established separation between Rhett and Scarlett. The use of doorways as an entrance to someone’s private and intimate space is often used to great effect in horror features. After all, one’s home, one’s room is sacred to them - an unwanted intruder is a truly unnerving sight.

In Nosferatu, Thomas Hutter experiences a terrifying stay at Count Orlok’s castle when he is attacked in the night by the Count. The doorway to Hutter’s bedroom is the focus and we are positioned centrally looking out into the dark corridor. Slowly, the Count arises from his coffin and we are met with a continuous shot of Orlok descending upon us. Count Orlok is going to infiltrate our private space – it is inevitable. We watch, helpless, as he creeps through the doorway. He is here.


The Shining also springs to mind. The famous “Here’s Johnny” scene where Nicholson’s character hacks at the door to the bathroom his wife is hiding in. Immediately more unsettling than the previous example, a bathroom is more of an intimate setting than anywhere else in the house. The door is the boundary between Johnny and his wife at her most vulnerable. Again, we are positioned inside, looking out, praying that Johnny doesn’t get in.

So, if doorways isolate us within a frame then they also isolate us from everything else. Hence why in the doorway portraits, the framing shows a literal isolation within the lockdown era. It is a blend of the social separation and the border between private and the open. André Bazin (a film scholar, I know sorry) suggests that the edges of a shot do not equal the frame of a painting, that a photograph or moving image are windows to a larger diegetic world – not cut off and separate but a particular viewpoint of social reality. The only true frame within these doorway shots is the frame of the doorway itself. The models in these doorway portraits are framed tightly by the entrances into their homes. They cover all of the frame, yet are still distanced from the spectator and the whole image itself. Literal isolation is being presented in the era of self-isolation. People’s intimate spaces have become more intimate, due to lockdown and doorway portraits portray this literally. As scrollers, we are only granted access to an outsider’s perspective.

As I’ve said, the empathy with a character comes from when we are positioned with them. If we are outside, looking in, then we are separated emotionally as well as literally.

Sorry that’s a bit sad, but then again it is a bit like that now isn’t it.

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