WFH Diary: My New Co-workers

Due to temporary closures in New York City resulting from COVID-19, the Morgan’s employees have been working from home. This diary series captures their musings and ponderings while managing the challenges and triumphs of operating at home. 

As the Edith Gowin Curatorial Fellow in the photography department, I conduct research for upcoming exhibitions and assist with the day to day maintenance of the Morgan’s growing photography collection—a collection that is currently inaccessible. On March 13th, the museum closed to the public and non-essential employees like myself. Normally I work from a cubicle in what was once a bedroom in J. Pierpont Morgan’s home, and I frequently ride the elevator down to the subterranean levels of the museum to check on photographs stored in the vault. Now, in the midst of the pandemic, I am fortunate to be able to work remotely on tasks such as cataloging photographs and transcribing an interview from a February research trip.

Thanks to my amazing colleagues, I have remote access to the necessary databases that allow me to catalog the department’s newest acquisitions, including several photographs by Irving Penn. Using my phone, I took snapshots of the Penn photographs in the last week that I worked on-site. One of the most fascinating aspects of examining the new photographs, in addition to the images themselves, is seeing the collection of stamps and inscriptions on the verso of the prints. The rubber stamps and handwritten captions tell a history of the photograph—the location and title, information about the edition size, and copyright. I was unable to photograph the verso of one photograph before the museum closed, so I add it to my growing list of tasks for when the museum reopens.

Ocean scene with beach and ruins of pier and phtotographer's hand held up in foreground.

Ray Johnson (1927–1995)
Hand, pier ruins, and Long Island Sound, 23 August 1994
Commercially processed chromogenic print
4 × 6 in. (10.16 × 15.24 cm)
Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate

View of ocean with photographer's hand holdin up a cresecent-shaped hat bill.

Ray Johnson (1927–1995)
Bill and Long Island Sound, winter 1992
Commercially processed chromogenic print
6 × 4 in. (15.24 × 10.16 cm)
Courtesy of the Ray Johnson Estate

Back in late February, as the first cases of Covid-19 were being reported in the United States, curator Joel Smith and I drove to Locust Valley, on Long Island, where artist Ray Johnson lived before his death in 1995. (The upcoming exhibition, Please Send to Real Life: Ray Johnson Photographs, is scheduled to open at the Morgan Library & Museum in February 2021). Now, almost two months since the trip, as I sit at the kitchen table while my one-year-old son babbles in the hallway, I remember how the water along the beaches of the North Shore (an area that Johnson routinely visited and photographed) reflected the sunshine. We are relegated to this half of our Brooklyn one-bedroom apartment because my husband, who works for the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME), has commandeered the living room for an office. Employees from across departments of the OCME are reassigned to new duties as the agency faces an unprecedented crisis. For the time being, the photography department works from one end of the apartment, in short fits around nap times and diaper changes, while morgue operations are handled down the hallway.

I find my thoughts bouncing from previously inconceivable scenarios of how to effectively quarantine my husband when he starts commuting to work in an emergency morgue, and how soon that might be, to wondering whether my son ate his broccoli or stuffed it down his highchair (Reader: he ate it). Then, I return to transcribing the interview during my son’s nap, and relish, however briefly, being transported to a sunny afternoon in February.

Beach and ocean at sunset scene.

Image by Leila Anne Harris


Leila Anne Harris
Edith Gowin Curatorial Fellow
Photography Department
The Morgan Library & Museum

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