Once confined to hospitals and dentist offices, masks have altered the face of America, if not exactly everyone who lives in it. Thanks to the pandemic, they've become ubiquitous, but the question of wearing them became a source of confusion as well as a lightning rod for culture-war controversy. Early on, the CDC said that wearing a face mask wasn't even necessary before later saying, basically, "Nevermind!"
In New York, going without a mask would get you fined, before it didn't. (This was also when face masks were in short supply and all kinds of people started to make them.) Meanwhile, in Trump country, wearing a mask became a sign of tyranny.
These days, you’re required to wear a mask on the subway, and also according to certain stipulations laid out in the phase 1 and phase 2 re-opening plans. But face masks have also become a cultural signifier, a subject for artists. Such is the case with a series of images of everyday New Yorkers wearing masks by photographer Peter Schafer.
"Like a lot of photographers, I decided to take pictures of life during the pandemic," Schafer says. "I first did a series on essential services, but I began to notice that more and more people were wearing masks. By the time I finished the first series, masks had become normalized. So, this series was born."
He took the photos in his Brooklyn neighborhood between April and May, while he was out on his morning "one-hour walk for vitamin D and sanity."
Schafer wants these photos to remind people that masks are probably more important than ever as the city emerges from lockdown. But he also sees them as testaments to a tumultuous point in NYC history. "They're simply portraits of people living their lives, with this moment in time reflected in their covered faces," he says. "And everything they brought to this moment shines through their eyes."