The City in Masks: Photographs by Francesca Magnani on view at the Consulate General of Italy in New York

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The City in Masks: Photographs by Francesca Magnani on view at the Consulate General of Italy in New York
“Black Lives Matter,” Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, (June 5, 2020).

NEW YORK, NY.- The City in Masks (La città in maschera), an exhibition of 25 images by street photographer Francesca Magnani, is on view by appointment from October 7 through November 11, 2021 at the Consulate General of Italy, a landmarked 1917 mansion at 690 Park Avenue.

Early on in the pandemic, many New Yorkers started coordinating their face coverings with their outfits and sometimes this new mandatory and concealing accessory became a statement in itself. Though the mask was needed for a basic protective function, it gradually transformed into a more complex object with multiple functions: communicating a message; expressing one’s mood, personality, ethnicity, or community; signifying mutual respect or belonging; or indicating a political stance.

With a background in classics and anthropology, Magnani has long been interested in issues of identity and self-representation and how people live and manage their everyday challenges. She has been photographing New Yorkers in masks since the pandemic began; the project is ongoing and now numbers more than 600 images. Magnani is aware of the formidable power masks hold as artifacts that simultaneously remind us of a disease and are crucial to warding it off.

“As a street photographer I have followed how people coped with the pandemic as a way to deal with the unknown. I was here on 9/11 and during Sandy’s aftermath. And in March 2020, I saw in people’s expressions and their ways of moving on the street an anguish, an incredulity, and a confusion that often matched my own.”

Magnani walked around the many city neighborhoods and progressively saw how people began to wear their feelings and expressions on a piece of cloth. She walked every day – in parks, on the subways, during the Black Lives Matter demonstrations, in restaurants, across the bridges.

When possible, Magnani talks to people about the masks she photographs as they often have a story. “Whether they are made by one’s mother, an aunt, a friend, or found in a basket with a message written by a neighbor, I have noticed people are attached to the narrative behind the mask,” said Magnani. “And, because I never plan these portraits, each mask reminds me of a specific route I walked during the past year; it marks a point in a new time in history I was learning to navigate myself and a spark of a connection that helps me feel grounded and human.”

Seventy-eight images from the series have been acquired by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History as part of the first set of multiple pandemic-related museum’s digital acquisitions. Upon acquiring the images Shannon Thomas Perich, Curator, Photographic History Collection, wrote, “Your eye for interesting people and color in NYC is wonderful. You understood and could see how individuals were responding to and making mask-wearing something they could incorporate into their personality and personal expression. Your work, which reminds us of how people adapted to this new way of moving through the world, is historically important.”

In addition, two Covid-19 related photographs were part of New York Responds. The First Six Months recently on view at the Museum of the City of New York; and one (May 10) mask was part of the #ICPConcerned group show, now online.

Francesca Magnani is a Brooklyn-based Italian photographer, writer, teacher and translator. Born and raised in Padua, she arrived at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, as a Fulbright Scholar in 1997. Since then she has been telling in words and images the stories that move her while she chronicles at the same time her own life.

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