P.B. Photo Centre Exhibits Images That Defined 2020

Palm Beach Photo Centre
MUSICAL CARS: January 4, 2021, Los Angeles, California, USA: Motorists wait in long lines to take a coronavirus test in a parking lot at Dodger Stadium. The test site is the biggest in the United States and has tested more than a million people since it opened at the beginning of the pandemic. Los Angeles and Southern California are at the epicenter of the biggest surge of people infected by the virus in the United States. (Credit Image: © Ringo Chiu/ZUMA Wire)

Twenty-twenty was a year of horrible statistics. We couldn’t see the plague sweeping the globe and our nation from coast to coast, but we could read about it, the ugly caseload and death toll appearing like morbid clockwork every day by about 11:30.

The visuals I’ll remember most from 2020 are the ones of absence: the desolate streets and businesses that once teemed with life that, for a sprawling span of time last year, suggested something like a tidy apocalypse, an alien invasion of surgical precision: Everything’s still here, and in tip-top shape, except for us.

In fact, Scott Mc Kiernan, the founder of ZUMA Wire Service, named his annual compilation of the year’s best photojournalism “The Year in Pictures 2020: Apocalypse NOW.” Several dozen of these images are on display now at the Palm Beach Photographic Centre under the title “The New Normal: COVID Times,” its first exhibition since reopening last year.

I expected to see shots of a vacant Times Square or the Las Vegas strip or the Louvre, but people—compassionate, determined, irate, invaluable—were the dominant force in so many of these images. The various tumults of 2020 (COVID was just one, of course) affected throngs of people, but curator Mc Kiernan rightly focuses on the individual close-ups that defined broader trends, movements and stories. I won’t soon forget the image of a firefighter in California, the state’s destructive wildfires reflected inside his protective glasses. Or the trans couple in Bangladesh locking lips despite both wearing face coverings. Or the man in the MAGA hat pointing his finger and screaming in furious close-up at the person holding the camera.

PRESIDENT SELFIE: January 18, 2020, Indianola, Iowa, USA: Former U.S. Vice President JOE BIDEN, candidate for President in Democrat primaries, takes selfies with students after speaking during a campaign event at Simpson College Saturday. About 250 people came to Simpson College to listen to Vice President talk about his reasons for running for President. Iowa hosts the first event of the presidential election cycle. The Iowa Caucuses are in two weeks on February 3rd. (Credit Image: © Jack Kurtz/ZUMA Wire)

Presidential politics consume just a fraction of wall space in “The New Normal,” and they take on an appropriately surreal tenor, from Donald Trump hugging an American flag in ecstasy at the 2020 CPAC to then-candidate Biden snapping a selfie in front of a clutch of unmasked, un-distanced supporters last February. Ironically, this one is surreal because of its normalcy: Months later, Biden would campaign exclusively by drive-in.

TAKE A KNEE: June 1, 2020, Boca Raton, Florida, USA: Florida Highway Patrol Captain ROGER REYES, 49, takes a knee with demonstrator VELL REMY, who is holding a ìNo Justice, No Peaceî sign in the middle of the road, that was shut down to prevent the marchers from going on to Interstate 95. 200+ people protesting the death of Floyd during an arrest, marched eastbound on Glades Road, intent on taking their demonstration onto the highway. On the other side stood dozens of Florida Highway Patrol troopers, dressed in riot gear and just as intent on keeping the protest from moving. Similar scenarios around the country have devolved into pitched battles between law enforcement and protesters, resulting in arrests, injuries and further chaos. Monday night Reyes opted for conversation and compassion. Taking a knee alongside the protesters to show ìrespect for their demonstration and the cause they believe in.î ìRespect and humanity is what itís all about,î said Reyes. (Credit Image: © Greg Lovett/The Palm Beach Post via ZUMA Wire)

Of course, the summer of protests and the racial reckoning that followed is represented here as well. We see police deploying pepper spray on unarmed protestors, but we are also treated to the yin of this yang: a Boca Raton highway patrolman taking a knee alongside a protestor in solidarity. The most viewed and impactful single image of 2020 is here as well, and it’s no less chilling the thousandth time we’ve seen it: the vertical smartphone shot of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck.

But one of the gifts of this exhibition is that it provides viewers with a more global perspective, illuminating stories that barely made news amid America’s many convulsions. There is an incredible shot, recalling Tiananmen Square’s act of defiance, of a single Thai protestor, in the rain, pushing against a phalanx of police armed in riot gear. In a dazzling action shot, the photographer captures the head of a champion Russian ice skater as she’s being dipped by her partner amid a blurry swirl of movement. We see a similarly dynamic image of a polar bear bursting from the ice, also in Russia, and health care workers in China sharing their sorrows in the early days of the pandemic with a group hug in full PPE.

SHAKE, RATTLE and ROLL: February 27, 2020, St. Petersburg, Leningrad Oblast, Russia: HAARCHAANA, a young female white Polar bear shakes off water at Leningrad Zoo. She is celebrating 2020 International Polar Bear Day. (Credit Image: © Peter Kovalev/TASS via ZUMA Press)

And there is, at last, humor. One man, in an act of either good-natured mirth or perhaps a subversion of mask orders, dons a horse head while strolling down the street, which contrasts comically with his dress shirt and sport coat. And a Boca Raton couple, known for staging elaborate photos for their wedding anniversary, sport nuptial attire, plus N95 masks and goggles, in a stormy and dread-soaked tableau out of Hitchcock. It may be awfully dark humor, but this was 2020; we will take what we can get.

“The New Normal: COVID Times” runs through Aug. 14 at Palm Beach Photographic Centre, 415 Clematis St., West Palm Beach. Admission is free. For information, call 561/253-2600 or visit workshop.org.

For more of Boca magazine’s arts and entertainment coverage, click here.