Photo Essay: What Stories Do Stray Masks Tell? | Culture | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Photo Essay: What Stories Do Stray Masks Tell?


Published February 16, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated February 22, 2022 at 3:47 p.m.

  • Bryan Pfeiffer

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 litter.

Yet rarely do we pick one up — not in the same way we might take a plastic bottle from the trail or a candy wrapper off our front lawn. The mask we avoid like, well, you know.

The beer can, the cigarette butt, the apple core, the hypodermic needle — as litter each can be an expression of culture, intent and circumstance. Not so the pandemic mask. We do not cast it away with haste or indifference or disgust. The mask's journey to earth is almost certainly accidental, regrettable.

Since autumn, I've been photographing fallen masks around Montpelier and during my routine adventures in nature — watching birds and botanizing, for example, or contemplating the waves in the Gulf of Maine. Each mask tells a story or evokes in me some emotion.

  • Bryan Pfeiffer

On Monhegan Island, Maine, a flower-print mask lay on the trail. Did it belong to an artist visiting to paint the lighthouse or landscape? The medical mask beside Lake Champlain bore the impression of its wearer's Roman nose. Did he wander off-trail there as I had? And what about the psychedelic mask dangling beside a footbridge over the river in Montpelier? What brave soul hung it there, like a lost mitten, for the owner to retrieve?

On the city's streets and sidewalks, the stories seem more pointed. Which lawmaker or lobbyist might have dropped that blue mask near the Statehouse? Was the mask at rest in oak leaves outside my office one of mine? N95 masks are scarce among this litter; are their owners more careful not to lose them? And that black fabric mask, flattened like roadkill, soiled with winter salt and sand: Well, I have no notion of its erstwhile owner, but for the mask itself I bear no sympathy whatsoever. None. Some masks are like that.

I'm not entirely sure why I photograph these masks — about three dozen so far. Maybe this is performance art. Maybe it's little more than fuel for social media. Or maybe I'm seeking something more, some chronicle of us expressed in our pandemic fallout.

As if the lives it has taken hasn't been terrible enough, this plague has also exposed and exploited our disunities. Masks are flimsy and potent symbols in the culture wars. But then again, so are debates about art and garbage.

Bryan Pfeiffer is a Montpelier-based field biologist and writer whose work appears occasionally in the Boston Globe.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Fallout"