dirty surgical masks hanging on a clothes line

Each of the photos in Between Us and Catastrophe is printed through a discarded mask. I did this for a few reasons, one is that in the early days of the pandemic I was obsessed with masks — specifically where to get one. We’d heard about them on TV and the radio but all the stores were sold out — hospitals were even having trouble getting them, and then I started seeing them, discarded, on the ground. I was photographing them at first, just discarded on the ground, but always in the rain. But soon enough, when I started photographing people, with the exception of the first few, we were all wearing masks and I realized that I’d met these people, photographed them, listened to their intimate stories, but I hadn’t seen their faces. We were living, and interacting with one another, through this fabric. So I started to wonder if I could print photos through a mask. There are three layers in a typical disposable surgical mask an outer fabric layer, an inner extruded fiber. I was interested in the middle layer mostly — the extruded material is sprayed on a surface and hardens, sort of like a giant tangle of yarn that, hopefully, catches things on their way to and from your lungs. I cut the first masks apart and used these inner layers between the viewer and the image. It was an inexact process. Later I became more obsessed with the natural edges and I started pulling them apart with my hands rather than cutting them out. I was struck by a) that each one was unique and b) that this was something no one was ever meant to see. The inner fabric was designed to be assembled by machine, used, and thrown away. By photographing that surface I was capturing something nobody had ever seen before and also something that might, just possibly, have some inert coroniavirus on it. In this way, I thought, perhaps I could get our nemisis to sit for a portrait. 

dirty child's surgical mask hanging on a clothes lineSo, occasionally I travel with a stash of plastic bags and gloves and when i see a mask I’ll grab it and then let it sit in the sun in the back yard for a week or so to disinfect before pulling them apart. I’ll brush off the obvious dirt but things that are ground in are part of the experience. They got that dirt somehow — when a person stepped on it when it blew into the nook of a curb — all that is part of the story. 

Ones that I collect after a rainstorm I hang from a clothesline to help them stay more-or-less flat and then I store them in archival sheets before finding the right sheet of mask material for the right portrait. 

I find the fiber of the masks fascinating and rewarding in all of its intricacies — they’re both functional and beautiful if you take the time to look. And each of these masks has the story of a person with it that I’m not able to tell. They are the heat signature of the passage of a human being through our city on the way from where to where I don’t know. 

What can we learn swimming through our own midden? Certainly that we were here, some one and a half million of us — of whom more than 3,000 didn’t survive the past year because of this invisible monster … and here is the reflection of their passing.

A black and white image of a torn layer of a surgical mask.  

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