The Best Photos From 2020

Remember when? You most likely don’t.

In January, Jay-Z talked about how he was utilizing Roc Nation to harness the N.F.L.’s energy to direct power and cash to social-justice initiatives like ending police brutality.

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In February, a coterie of veterans, gamers, history buffs and gun enthusiasts gathered in California for an immersive military simulation event.

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Usually, a photograph captures a moment in time and space. But this year, time and space were slippery and elastic. In the United States, things started off normally enough. January and February were sharply in focus: 2020 vision. But by March, time and space took on new implications and contexts. Time was counted in lockdown days; space, measured in increments of a safe six feet apart.

Soon the days oozed together, liquefied like a clock in a Dalí painting. The weirdness and the dread and the tragedy seeped into every aspect of daily life, and of course, the photographic record of it.

Suddenly, everywhere in the world, it wasn’t just about what was being photographed, but how. Subjects were masked. Photographers wore P.P.E. Images were taken at a distance — from down the hall, or through a glass window, or via the screen of a phone.

Before long, scenes that used to seem perfectly ordinary — a crowd of humans; hands touching a woman’s face; an intimate portrait in a bedroom — were newly burdened with the weighty subtext of a new reality. Just as once upon a time we may have clutched our pearls at the sight of an ankle, we’re now mildly scandalized by what was once very common social behavior. So close! Is that safe? That must be from The Before Times. Often it’s intertwined with a twinge of sadness. Remember when we used to drink cocktails together? In the same room? Anxiety and loss blanket everything, and the simplest actions are steeped in fear.

In May, on assignment for The New York Times, the photographer Elliot Ross sent disposable cameras to six residents of Evergreen Gardens, an assisted living facility in Colorado. One image, by 93-year-old Muriel Morgan, stands out.

In front of a stone building and sliver of driveway, a woman sits in a wooden chair, her face turned toward the camera. She has a walker in front of her, and she wears sunglasses and a cloth mask that covers her nose and mouth. Beyond her, there are more wooden chairs, at clearly measured distances. One stands empty. Two others are occupied with more masked people. In the foreground, as a bouquet of balloons enters the frame, a toddler looks on from at least six feet away.

The colors produced by the film infuse a vintage aura, brushing on a veneer of nostalgia. Another time warp, another melted clock. Yet it is very much an image taken in 2020 — of a very 2020 situation. Last December we may not have understood it. Why is the chair in the street? Why is everyone so far apart? Why the masks? Now it all makes sense. We’ve been trained to understand a new visual language.

Sometimes when something wild and unexpected happens, we joke about a tear in the space-time continuum. As if some kind of quantum sci-fi futuristic wormhole phenomenon is the only logical explanation. Looking back on photos taken during this disrupted year, as we slide into a new one, you will not see the tiny microbe that changed everything. You will not see the photographer’s protective equipment or the paranoia in the air. But you will see that we soldiered on. We kept going. The clock was melting, but it didn’t stop ticking.

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