Whether it is a token of virtue, a symbol of acquiescence or an expression of common sense, the pandemic mask is also a new form of trash.
Yet we rarely pick one up—not the way we might pick up a plastic bottle on the trail or a candy wrapper on our lawn. The mask we avoid like, well, you know.
The beer can, the cigarette butt, the apple core, the hypodermic needle – as detritus, each can be the expression of a culture, an intention and a circumstance. This is not the case with the pandemic mask. We do not reject it with haste, indifference or disgust. The mask’s journey to earth is almost certainly accidental, regrettable.
Since the fall, I have been photographing fallen masks around Montpellier and during my routine adventures in nature – birdwatching and botany, for example, or contemplating the waves in the Gulf of Maine. Each mask tells a story or evokes an emotion in me.
On Monhegan Island, Maine, a flower mask lay on the trail. Did it belong to an artist who came to paint the lighthouse or the landscape? The Lake Champlain medical mask bore the imprint of its wearer’s Roman nose. Did he get lost there like me? And what about the psychedelic mask hanging next to a footbridge over the river in Montpellier? What brave soul hung it there, like a lost mitten, for the owner to retrieve?
On the streets and sidewalks of the city, the stories seem more pointed. What lawmaker or lobbyist could have dropped that blue mask near the Statehouse? Was the mask resting in oak leaves in front of my desk one of mine? N95 masks are rare among this litter; are their owners more careful not to lose them? And this black cloth mask, flattened like a road accident, stained with salt and winter sand: Well, I have no idea of its former owner, but for the mask itself, I have no idea. have no sympathy. Nothing. Some masks are like that.
I’m not quite sure why I’m photographing these masks – about three dozen so far. Maybe it’s performance art. It may be a little more than fuel for social media. Or maybe I’m looking for something more, a chronicle of us expressed in our pandemic fallout.
As if the lives it took weren’t terrible enough, this plague has also exposed and exploited our disunities. Masks are fragile and powerful symbols in culture wars. But then again, so are the debates about art and trash.