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.
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.
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.
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.