Masked New Yorkers front and center in new exhibit

When it comes to his craft, you might say A.J. Stetson just has an eye for it.

“The stories are what I find so captivating,” he says, hauling a wagon filled with 39 poster-size portraits.

Every day at sunrise, Stetson secures the portraits to a cast-iron fence at East 15th Street and Rutherford Place in Gramercy Park.

“Six feet apart, socially distanced,” Stetson points out.

They’re stories — faces — of every day New Yorkers exhibiting a simple sign of respect: a mask.

“I feel almost possessed by this urge to continue capturing New Yorkers in this moment, wearing masks," Stetson said. 

The moment he refers to is of course a health pandemic that continues to grip the globe, brought on by a virus that demands we keep our distance.

But Stetson says these pieces of fabric have actually brought us closer together.

“We are all experiencing the indignity of having to cover our faces, the inconvenience of doing that. But the shared empathy of collectively wearing these masks to protect each other is I think something that has formed a collective bond," Stetson said.

That bond is the basis of his new outdoor, COVID-safe exhibit: “Masked NYC— Witness to our Time,” an exhibit that was born out of Stetson’s own experience with the virus back in March.

After spending 25 days inside of his room fighting the virus, he emerged with pent-up energy and the desire to put his photographic eye back to use.

And after all that time alone in isolation, he needed to be around people.

So he began taking pictures, always asking his subjects he meets on the streets for permission, and focusing his camera on their eyes.

“The eyes can tell quite a bit [about someone]," Stetson said. 

So far, he’s taken more than 700 portraits.

“I think what I’ve discovered as we’ve been masked for half a year or longer,” Stetson says, “is that we can tell even more than we considered about someone’s state of being, someone's presence in the moment, from just the eyes.”

Masked NYC is up for view outside the Quaker Friends Meeting House through October 7th, though several venues have expressed interest in hosting it next.

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