The Historical Present: Pandemic Connections in an Early 20th-Century Photo
A discovery made while designing an exhibition reveals surprising parallels with our current moment.
Jane Cavalier, Claire Corey
Apr 1, 2021
Behind the curves and corners of MoMA’s Engineer, Agitator, Constructor: The Artist Reinvented exhibition, mural-sized photographic wallpapers reveal themselves in moments of surprise. These wallpapers contextualize the early-20th-century works of art and design in the exhibition, offering glimpses of the past, inviting us to imagine what it was like to have lived in another place and time and—and to envision how the worlds within those photographs shaped the artists whose works are on view.
This aspect of the exhibition’s design started out as a small archival photograph, which I scanned to make 100 times or more its original size. All of the scratches and thumbprints become amplified and larger than life, interrupting the viewer’s entry into the image. I digitally retouch these blemishes, working inch by inch in a process that takes days of detailed work to create a more legible, more inviting reproduction.
While digitally cleaning pixels on several of the images we planned to reproduce for the exhibition walls, I found multiple instances of masks on the faces of sidewalk promenaders. I probably wouldn’t have given them much thought had I not been wearing a mask myself as I erased each tiny mark and looked at every spec of dust on the image. The connection of past and present was immediate. I alerted the curatorial team to the discovery, which led my collaborator Jane Cavalier to investigate the date of one photograph in particular.
–Claire Corey, Production Manager, Creative Team
Coffee and tea billboard advertisements for the Dutch company Van Nelle, designed by Jacob (Jac.) Jongert, Amsterdam, c. 1930. Masked figures are circled.
Engineer, Agitator, Constructor is on view through April 10, 2021, and is organized by Jodi Hauptman, Senior Curator, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and Adrian Sudhalter, Consulting Curator, with Jane Cavalier, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Drawings and Prints, The Museum of Modern Art, New York.