Alexander Coggin’s latest photo series reflects on a year of wearing masks

Year of the Ear sees the photographer apply his distinctive brand of ‘magical realism’ to members of the public as they adopt the practice of donning face masks during the pandemic

Inspired by playwrights such as Tony Kushner and August Wilson, theatrics is at the heart of Alexander Coggin’s image making. The American-born, UK-based photographer studied acting before applying his take on ‘magical realism’ to the mundane scenarios and everyday behaviours that we can all relate to.

Coggin’s latest project embodies the bizarreness and banality of the so-called ‘new normal’ that we’ve all been forced to adapt to in the wake of the pandemic. In Year of the Ear, he hones in on one of its most divisive features: face masks.

The idea for the photo series came about after Coggin noticed the awkwardness inherent in the new ritual of donning a mask. “It was a tough year for our ears and I simply noticed that mine were sore after plugging myself up with headphones, my mask, my glasses,” he tells CR.

“During the pandemic, my world and photographic thinking had gotten a lot smaller, trying to find ways that I could build character into imagery with a lot less stimulatory information present, and ears seemed a natural subject to photograph.”

While the rest of us were getting lost down the internet rabbit hole of Covid conspiracies or baking endless batches of banana bread, Coggin spent much of his time walking around east and central London in search of ears to shoot. “I treated this like street photography and worked with a roving unit on the street, asking strangers if they wouldn’t mind posing for my census for 30 seconds,” he says.

Over the course of the year, the rigour of cataloguing multiple versions of the same subject created a generative framework in which the series came to life. “I’ve always been very obsessed with a photographic census, a repeated look at the same thing. More so when it’s a corporeal isolated view as ‘variety’ is automatically present in those parameters,” says Coggin.

“The evolution is indexical to the concept – the series evolves just by adding participants to the series. I will keep shooting this over the course of the year, and hope to have many more, hopefully enough for a book.”

Looking through the series of over 80 images, the humble ear becomes an intriguing symbol of how we shape our identity and engage with our surroundings as humans.“We distract ourselves constantly from our sensory experience in public,” says Coggin.

“This has usually been voluntary – we prefer our own music and podcasts to the overture of oncoming trains or ambulance sirens. But the air we breathe and the scents we smell have been taken away from us involuntarily, resulting in a foggy yet extremely necessary oxygen-deprived existence.”