Masked/Unmasked: on artist/photographer David Noah

I spoke with David Noah in late September, 2020, on the eve of his virtual exhibition at Athica, Masked/Unmasked, curated by Lucy Reback, with the managers of the virtual platform, The Exhibit, in New Zealand. Is there a larger flashpoint of controversy, opinions and conflicting/competing scientific information that surrounds wearing a mask vs. going maskless during a pandemic? A link to the exhibition is below.

David Noah was born in Lubbock, Texas, and lived there until he was 7 years old. His father was a cook in an institution there. “The North panhandle in Texas is like a Hellscape to me: a very flat, dirt space, with sandstorms; blistering hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter,” he says. From there his family relocated to Flagstaff, Arizona, home of the Lowell Observatory and the discovery in 1930 of the 9th planet from the Sun, Pluto. Noah is still angry at his parents for never taking him to the observatory. From there yet another relocation to Austin, where he lived until he was 20. “I think of Austin as home, my formative years.” After being in and out of the University of Texas, Noah moved to Berkeley, Ca., in the early 70s, “when things were pretty crazy.” He spent his mid-20s “wasting my youth.” he says, smiling. Noah then returned to Austin, in and out of schools, and it was then he got interested in photography. He was working at the University of Austin campus bookstore, which had a camera store within it. “I was imagining that I was going to become a writer,” he says, “and would go home and scribble at night, anxious, anxiety things, and torture myself as it wasn’t going well.” But his friends would drop by the book store and say, “Let’s go to the park and take pictures of birds while they’re flying.” “That,” Noah says, “sounded like a lot more fun than the agonies of writing. That’s when I started getting interested in photography.”

David Noah

It was during that time that he met his future wife, Sandy Bird (owner/ trainer of Lucky Dog Agility) in a class. Bird got her Master’s degree and took a job in Vicksburg, Mississippi, where they lived for 5 years and where Noah finally completed his Bachelor’s degree at Jackson State University in Art Education. At that point they were both tired of Vicksburg and looked around for a college town, not too far North for the weather, nor too South for the heat, with culture, thus Athens. His wife got a job for the EPA as an engineer, while Noah was hired as a Middle School Art Teacher in Elberton, where he barely lasted 3 years, “That’s as much as I could take. I wasn’t suited for it. The first year I taught I would come home weeping.” Yes, he said that was true. By the second year he said that he knew what he was doing, but was tired of it. After their second child was born he stayed home and became a stay-at-home father. Eventually Noah entered a Master’s program in Gifted Education at UGA, “but that kind of morphed to an interest in computers and educational technologies,” he said. So he got a Master’s in Educational Technology at UGA , entered a PhD. program in that field, and began teaching college students. He’s always continued drawing and photographing, and especially drawn to “street photography,” giving a talk called Ethics & Street Photography at the Athens Photography Guild in 2017. You can see a sampling of his images on his website. One last thing: 30% of post-fee sales of the Masked/Unmasked prints go to Athica, as a charitable organization, and 20% to the Athens Area Community Foundation’s COVID-19 Community Response Fund. – Mark Katzman



AthensUncharted: What was the origin of the Masked/Unmasked project?

David Noah: After the lock-down had started, at the end of March, Sandy and I had both gotten masks. And I took a picture of her with and without her mask and had her do the same with me with and without a mask. We realized how different our expressive capabilities were, both masked and non-masked. Suddenly we read everything from our eyes. It was just a lark, let’s try this. And this got me thinking about it more and realized there was no surprise that masks were becoming contentious as a political and social idea. So much goes on in faces and what we do with them with masks. Psychologically and socially the good guys wear masks and so do the bad guys. We do it to conceal ourselves and to reveal ourselves. That’s what we’re doing with certain kinds of masks. I got interested on how masks worked. And it was at that point that I put out a volunteer call.

AU: When did you get the idea to have participants write anything they wanted?

DN: I put out a call for volunteers to let me take their picture with and without a mask, and somewhere in there it occurred to me that it would be interesting to get their actual thoughts, not just their picture, but their thinking about masks. I’ve seen photographic images with people writing below them, personal stuff. So I thought that would be an interesting thing to bring together and that’s when I started to include that aspect as well.

AU: Did the responses surprise you?

DN: I guess yes and no. No, in that most everybody that volunteered were mostly enthusiastic mask wearers. So they fell into the “let’s all wear masks, for god’s sake.” But the array of responses and the depth of some of them were sometimes surprising to me, in that how many people have thought about what goes on in mask wearing. How nuanced the inner response to that was. People reported the most intimate things, like “They can’t see me smile,” or “I’m singing behind my mask and nobody knows,” on to broader social themes, “I do this for the safety of our country and each other,” or “The Administration sucks.” (laughing)

AU: What was the age array?

DN: The very youngest was a little girl who was 5 or 6, maybe, and the oldest was a woman in her 90s.

AU: Do you consider a book out of it?

DN: Yeah, I’m considering it. Only about half of the images I took comprise the show. And I want to thank to all the people who have helped put the show together, especially Athica, but the many talented technical people behind it.

AU: How, in your personal life, have you felt about wearing a mask?

DN: One thing I’ve experienced is the kinds of communities that it creates. And then when I go out with a mask out in public, there are those wearing masks and those who aren’t. It develops a kind of tribal sense, in that I can trust this person wearing a mask because they care enough about this situation and I don’t trust others choosing not to wear one. So there’s that aspect of it. And it makes me more aware of just the general way that faces are masks. That we compose a persona in order to show something to the world that reveals who we are. And once you wear the mask are you free then, inside, authentic or not. I don’t know.

AU: All of the information that’s out there points to the fact that the mask isn’t 100% effective, but it is, still, with distancing, the only deterrent to protecting yourself from airborne transmission. Why on earth would anyone not care to protect themselves, and others from themselves, especially in places and events where people gather?

DN: All the things that go on with mask wearing, about its symbolic purposes, is such an intimate thing. Our breath, our face, those things make people uncomfortable, and when they feel like they have to do something that’s making them uncomfortable they go off into this, to me, political stuff, that their “freedom” is being taken away, even though it’s guarding their life. To me that feels like bullshit. So, yeah, I think there’s all this symbolic and emotional resonance to mask wearing that makes people uncomfortable, as I said.

AU: It has been shown that people who gather in group events, unmasked, show a proven increase in COVID cases, and, with the evidence stacked against you, still feel like it’s a hindrance to their “freedom.”

DN: I can’t wrap my head around why that’s a rational decision. And we have people like Bill Barr say something about how it’s the greatest tyranny since slavery. It’s just like, you’re insane, you know. Not only small-minded and ignorant.

AU: And then again, it’s come to be shown by our President’s own admission, that he knew the virus was an airborne pandemic much earlier than any actions were taken, which could have saved thousands of lives. Do consider him culpable/responsible?

DH: It was his direct hand that was responsible, not the journalist he confessed it to. There are thousands of deaths that need not have happened, had he shown some leadership. With better leadership, fewer would have died. But the mask project made me feel hopeful, that many people were willing to engage it. They were there, not to be wanting to see their picture seen, but members of a community that wants to do the sane, sensible thing for other people and wear these masks. And there was a sense, from a lot of the people doing it, that they were happy to participate in the project cause they still wanted to have something, a venue, to say something. They made me more hopeful about humanity.