One of the most satisfying memes of the last few years celebrates macaroni and cheese. Someone on social media will write “I made him mac and cheese …” or some such and share a revolting photo of a gelatinous dish of gray noodle slop. Then everyone will freak out and pile on. Sometimes the post is a joke, sometimes it’s real, and also sometimes it’s wings or meatloaf. In the case of Keisha Lance Bottoms, who also happens to be the mayor of Atlanta, it was just a sincere picture showing off her Christmas mac and cheese, to the extreme scorn and horror of the internet. Sure it did look a little dry, but who among us, you know?
The first notable mac and cheese posting went wild in October 2017, with an infamously horrid mac and cheese brought to an office potluck. In the rollicking five financial quarters between these two mac and cheese crises, photographs of earnestly made bad food and also trolling imitations (usually using stolen photographs) proliferated and became indistinguishable. It has been this year pleasurably impossible to tell what was a case of Auntie Gladys going fully wrong at the church social and what was someone stealing a grody pic off Facebook to snatch some likes. For us out here mainlining our Instagram and Facebook and Twitter feeds like it was our paid job — long days pickaxing for weak LOLs, followed by thin, ill dreams — the experience of real and fake was essentially identical.
It’s now more impossible than ever to discover what a photograph means or where it came from, whether it’s of a dreary Christmas side dish, or a selfie on a volcano, or a couple posing holiday-style with their child on their driveway, but then it turns out the driveway is not even theirs and also, who knows about the child? (Yes, this apparently just happened.) How sincere or manipulative is a photo? What garbage dump is just beyond the frame of that beautiful sunset? Whose culture does a photograph represent or betray? (The depths of reasonable interracial fury surrounding mac and cheese are very real.) Which of these beautiful or gross photographs is an advertisement? Was the person being photographed the product, and if so, how were we paying? Similarly, who made the photographable environment, and was it a marketing agency? (Buddy, it was.) And a question that bubbles up again and again: Who else was present, and what person or machine captured the moment?
Which brings us to this collection of our best published photographs of the year, as chosen by our photo editors. To me, a few suffer without context, but perhaps those will be your very favorites. (Besides, in many other cases, the photos were more exceptional than the texts they accompanied.) That’s the joy of living in a time when we are not only all informed consumers of photography but also, with Instagram a billion members strong, nearly all practicing photographers ourselves. We all make the side dishes; we all take the photographs; and also we all stunt on other people’s photographs and side dishes.
Whether you love or hate or are puzzled or upset by them, all these photographs are scrupulous. Most of the subjects have been photographed with their consent or their participation, but none are the authors or directors of the photographs. These people — and places and situations — were photographed because the photographer was trying to learn about them, or is trying to explain something about them. In their practice, the photographers are playing by the honest rules. The line between me posting pics of my kitty cats on Instagram and Rafael Rios posting pics of Justin Theroux (the biggest cat of all) on The New York Times seems thinner than ever, but it’s not all that thin really. In all the sunsets of our real world now, there really always is a burning garbage dump nearby. Our best photographers promise to keep the trash fire just in frame. — CHOIRE SICHA
A gown at the Giambattista Valli couture show in Paris.
Paris Starn, photographed in Brooklyn, started a clothing line based on her great-grandmother’s aprons.
Hijras, who include transgender and intersex people, assemble for a portrait in Mumbai. “Personally, I don’t want to beg. Nobody wants to beg,” said Puja, 28.
“I don’t care about being the first transgender teen idol at all,” said the pop star Kim Petras, photographed in Brooklyn.
Lisa Vanderpump with her dog Puffy at the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan.
This man in Glouster, Ohio, gave up on the news entirely, going so far as to wear headphones when venturing out to Starbucks.
“I wanted bangs a couple of months ago, but my sisters told me they didn’t, so we couldn’t do it,” said Andrea Levesque, who designs and models with her sisters Arianna and Athena, here at home in Queens.
John Boyega, seen here in London, began making an early transition from actor to producer.
Visitors posed for photos inside an Oval Office replica featuring a wax Donald Trump at Madame Tussauds in Times Square.
Sharon Stone, at age 59, at the Mondrian Hotel in Los Angeles.
The musician Joy Postell getting her hair styled by Autumn Meade at Conscious Heads Barbershop and Natural Hair Salon in Baltimore.
“Nobody smokes cigarettes. You go to the bathroom, there’s a zero percent chance that anyone’s smoking a cigarette and there’s a 50-50 chance that there’s five guys Juuling,” one high school senior in Connecticut told us.
Eglantina Zingg, center, won the contest for best lady’s mask at Save Venice’s masquerade ball fund-raiser at the Pierre Hotel in Manhattan.
“Lately, I have found out that a lot of the money we made is no longer available for me. I don’t know where it is, but a guy, and maybe one or two others, have found a way to take it,” said Stan Lee, the Marvel Comics creator, seen here at home in Los Angeles half a year before his death.
Five years after the Rana Plaza disaster in Dhaka, Bangladesh — 1,100 garment factory workers were killed and another 2,500 were injured — few gains have been made for workers’ rights.
Mashael AlRajhi, a designer in Saudi Arabia, showed at the inaugural Arab Fashion Week in Riyadh.
“I’m a good little worker, a hard worker,” said Woody Harrelson, photographed here at home in Los Angeles. “But I’m also a world-class lollygagger. I really would prefer nutso to do.”
Meghan Markle became a new member of the British monarchy, marrying Prince Harry at Windsor Castle. Many, many Americans attended, if only to sit outside and watch on Jumbotrons.
“I don’t have an agent. I book myself,” said the performer Missy Martinez, seen here at home in Los Angeles. “Just a few years back, if you didn’t have an agent, you didn’t get work.” Women in porn are now making and distributing their own films, which has given them the freedom to produce the kind of material they would actually want to watch.
Members of the Lions Crew, a break dancing group, on the roof of the culture center in Casablanca, Morocco.
The actor Lee Pace in his dressing room at the Neil Simon Theater.
Cardi B getting ready for the Met Gala at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. “Extremely heavy” is how she characterized her outfit.
Iris Van Herpen showed clothing that redefined couture with modern tools.
Mennonites, seen here in Indian Creek, Belize, are a traditionally sectarian Christian denomination. They’ve lived in Belize, where they have private schools and are exempt from military service, since the mid-20th century. Many of them rely on smartphones for business.
Alex Velez trains at the Atlantic Boxing Club in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. The island has produced dozens of world-champion boxers in the last century.
“This is black history. It’s monumental.” Playboi Carti — at top left among his entourage, in Paris — told us about Virgil Abloh’s appointment as men’s artistic director at Louis Vuitton before walking in the designer’s first show for the fashion house.
An anonymous seamstress in her kitchen in Puglia, Italy, was among contract workers who said they are paid about 24 euros to sew an entire coat for luxury fashion brands, work that takes about four to five hours. The retail sale prices for these coats range from $935 to $2,340.
“Think of what a ‘Star Wars’ movie would be without the Empire,” said one civil war re-enactor of the hobby, which is falling out of fashion. The 155th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg, Pa., saw many fewer re-enactors than in years past.
Up close and personal at the Versace show in Milan.
Backstage at Thom Browne in Paris.
The Afropunk festival in Brooklyn once again brought out the transformative, talismanic magic of clothing and self-expression.
Young athletes now compete for Olympic team spots in a reality TV format.
Brooklyn has an underground wrestling scene, where teachers by day turn into athletic superstars by night.
In New York City, in the summer, every week is beach week.
The view from behind the scenes at the Miss America 2019 competition in Atlantic City.
Big-city office drones are eating more salads … and tossing compostable packaging into the trash.
The actor Justin Theroux is literally the person you’re most likely to run into on the street in Manhattan.
Backstage at the Pyer Moss fashion show in Brooklyn, which took place at the Weeksville Heritage Center and employed a 40-person gospel choir.
A skater performing at Le Bon Marché, a store in Paris that celebrates Los Angeles culture.
The model Alexina Graham on a motorbike taxi — the preferred mode of travel for models in Paris.
In the Bronx it is “often necessary to turn what others would see as public space into personal space,” rendering strangers invisible to people conducting private moments in public.
“I feel like my career has mostly been based off of men,” said Carmen Electra, seen here at her home in Los Angeles.
Jill Soloway, here at home in the backyard in Los Angeles, plans to build a gender-free entertainment empire.
Bette Midler hosted her annual “Hulaween” benefit for the New York Restoration Project at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine.
Immersive horror experiences began to enjoy year-round popularity. Leo Mörö (being attacked, at right, in Palmdale, Calif.) postponed college to spend more time enduring scary situations.
The soprano Joyce El-Khoury plants a kiss on the tenor Michael Fabiano. Mr. Fabiano was marrying Bryan McCalister, at right, at the Metropolitan Opera House.
Sal Gbajabiamila, seen at home in Lagos. She asked: “If I don’t dress how I feel now, if I’m not true to myself and how I want to express myself, when will I ever?”
A man experiencing his feelings at the ManKind Project in Manhattan.
Aiden Curtiss, backstage at the 2018 Victoria’s Secret show in Manhattan.
At the Branch Brook skating rink in New Jersey. Even today, many rinks have signs that forbid “saggy pants” and “hip-hop music.”
Celeste Twikler, a jewelry designer, found a home in Byron Bay, Australia. “There are so many female surfers here,” she said.
An employee of the Glitterex Corporation in Cranford, N.J., pours glitter to be packaged.
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