#46: Walking With Masks

Plus, RIP to Two Legendary NYC Walkers, Humble Arts Group Show on Walking, Jerry Saltz on Art after the Pandemic, plus more links.

Are you staying safe? Good because that’s more important than reading newsletters! But if you’re here, and willing to read, I appreciate it as always. If you’ve got something on your mind, please feel free to drop me a line info@bryanformhals.com

I’m Bryan and this is my weekly newsletter on walking, photography, maps and New York City.

Walking: One aspect of living in New York City that I’ve always appreciated is the ability to be anonymous in the crowd. The sheer number of people out in public make it easy to disappear and move about without drawing attention. I can simply walk out the door and be on my way without much concern for my safety or anyone bothering me. That’s not true for everyone, and I’ve learned over the years that my sense of safety is largely due to my multiple privileges.

It has taken years of deprogramming to begin to understand that privilege. I feel my empathy has expanded over the years, but I still can’t imagine what it feels like to not have that feeling of security in public when out walking. Assuring that security and equality for all involves a complex, interconnected set of social, political and economic issues that require our collective intelligence and action to resolve. We have a long way to go, and I know there’s more I can do to contribute.

That’s how I feel under normal circumstances but with the pandemic, my sense of safety in public has been shattered. I have the fear, and even though I know my privileges still protects me to some degree against the virus and violence, there’s still the feeling that it’s not safe, that no precaution, no amount of obsessive vigilance can protect me. One wrong move, and you can end up in the hospital within a few days. It’s heartbreaking to realize so many other people aren’t as fortunate. There is nowhere to hide, everyone is impacted to varying degrees, but the working class and marginalized appear to be experiencing the worst of the pandemic.

I’ve been wearing a scarf outside since the outbreak started, and in a bout of panic buying, I ordered masks from Amazon about a month ago. My package of 20 arrived at the same time as the recommendation we all wear them. If I’d known then what I know now, I wouldn’t have ordered them, and just used my scarf. I don’t know. I’m going to use them but perhaps they should be donated. It’s one of those small dilemmas where I change my mind daily, on the hour, by the minute. The small anxieties mount up.

Walking in public with a mask has made me feel more visible and aware of my presence on the sidewalk. There’s a hyper-vigilance around personal space, and our conduct in public. In the New York Times, Eleanor Barkhorn channels many of our anxieties when she writes about the ‘Rules for Using the Sidewalk During the Coronavirus.’ It has become an ongoing dialogue in New York City.

Additionally, do whatever it takes to stay six feet away from people on the sidewalk. Most of us are used to walking on the sidewalk in a straight line, occasionally moving a few inches left or right to accommodate a passing runner or a kid on a scooter. Now, when we prepare to pass someone, we need to be moving feet, not inches, away. That requires more drastic measures: getting off the sidewalk entirely to walk on the grass or in the street (assuming traffic isn’t heavy), crossing to the other side of the street, sometimes even stopping and turning around to walk in the opposite direction.

I’ve fully shifted to trying to keep 25ft of separation when I can. I’ve been mostly successful, although it requires a new type of hyper focused walking. In normal times, I tend to allow my focus to drift while walking, what other people are doing as they go about their walks, normally doesn’t capture my attention. But now, I’m constantly on the lookout, trying to anticipate their moves, figuring out the limits of my ability to spot people down the block or even around the corner. This act of seeing is making my fellow citizens more visible and aware of how we relate to each other while walking. I know many are making the same calculations about me. We are all trying to stay safe, and that means staying more aware and giving up some of anonymity while in public. I know I’m learning lessons I can take into the future, whenever that might come.


NYC & walking: Two prominent walkers died of COVID19 this week: architect and critic Michael Sorkin and the sociologist William B. Helmreich who walked every block in NYC nearly twice. Curbed has a nice tribute to them, I particularly liked this passage.

What made New York City great in their eyes was not its sheer density, but the innumerable opportunities its inhabitants had to interact with one another. That may be by brushing up against each other on the subway, standing in line together to buy coffee from a cart, sitting across from each other on park benches, or merely walking, an action that Sorkin says is not just a form of travel but an “analytic instrument.”

That’s the first time I’ve encountered the idea of walking as an “analytic instrument.” When I read it, there was an instant recognition, as if many of the ideas I’ve been ruminating on finally had an eloquent way to describe them.


Open Call - Group Show #65 – Easy Spirit: New Photography On Walking

© Ben Alper - from his series An Index of Walking

There is something therapeutic about going on walks and taking pictures – sometimes aimless, sometimes with calculated, project-based parameters in mind. It's a road trip on foot. It's about pause, introspection, mindfulness, and maybe some visual mile-marking.

In today's socially distant, quarantined world, walking (safely!) can be a form of personal liberation – one of the few things we can do outside. 

I’m very excited to be co-curating this show with Jon Feinstein over at Humble Arts Foundation. It’s amazing what they have done over the years and I admire their perseverance. I’m a fan of online shows and I’m expecting to discover many great photographers and projects working on walking projects. There’s no fee to enter. More info here.


Art isn’t about professionalism, efficiency, insurance, and safety; it’s about eccentricity, risk, resistance, and adaptation. Mike Egan, owner of the visionary Ramiken Gallery, writes to me, “Art will not survive as some dull thing, some social good that we must support out of consensual responsibility to the social good. Art will explode with the desires of the people to see action play out, with tears, screams, harmonies, and some death.” He goes on, “Watch what happens next. Galleries will go under — unless they survive. How to survive? Passion. Obsession. Desire.” - The Last Days of the Art World … and Perhaps the First Days of a New One Life after the coronavirus will be very different

The sinking feeling in my gut tells me that the creative industry will be one of the hardest hit and may never fully recover. It was already and always precarious industry with not much security. I can’t wrap my head around what comes after the pandemic. So we just wait and try to stay healthy.

Additional Links


I’m a photographer, editor and content strategist working in New York City. You can email me at info@bryanformhals.com or follow me on Instagram & Twitter

This newsletter is a weekly digest mixing updates on my current projects with the articles and media that catch my attention during the week. Topics I’m focusing on these days include walking, urbanism, New York city history, news about photography and photobooks, the attention economy and existential dread.