In March 2020, a silence descended on New York as the city entered its first week of quarantine. I knew right away I wanted to capture the eerie reality of the abandoned metropolis, but I was completely out of my element. Up until that moment, I had been a photographer of chaos. The busier, the louder, the more people, the better. Stillness scared me. The first time I went out with a camera at night was an exercise in futility. The cobblestone streets of the Meatpacking District that had teemed with life just a couple of weeks earlier were now completely deserted. On the street, at least, there were no more stories to be told.
As I walked home, defeated, I took a photo of the only lit restaurant on an otherwise shadowy block. Inside was a young woman wearing a mask and gloves — still a novel and strange sight at the time. She looked both safe in the radiating, warm light of the window and completely isolated in the surrounding darkness. Once I got home, I looked at this image for a long time, feeling that its strange atmosphere was somehow inexplicably familiar. And then it dawned on me: Hopper.
Edward Hopper's paintings never really touched me before. I admired the clean, converging lines, and how effectively he conveyed the loneliness of the city. But I never quite understood what the fuss was all about. Now I was prompted to revisit Hopper with fresh eyes. I googled his iconic “Nighthawks.” Immediately, I recognized an uncanny echo of the pandemic night. In a strange twist, the painting ceased to be about loneliness. Instead, the well-lit diner became a sanctuary from the alienating darkness of the desolate street. The people inside were not lonely — they were huddled together in comfort.
The next night, when I went out to photograph again, I saw Hopper's phantom in every lit-up window and shimmering streetlight. The stillness of the empty city no longer scared me. Instead, it metamorphosed into an abandoned stage set, with all the unresolved tension and heightened emotional drama usually reserved for a manically paced metropolis. This new, dark city was punctuated by windows, glowing like fireflies in the otherwise alienating darkness, revealing glimpses of domestic warmth. The people inside, much like men and women in “Nighthawks,” seemed safe.
Hopper painted “Nighthawks” in 1942, two weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, at the height of World War II. In a letter to a friend, he wrote "Painting seems to be a good enough refuge from all this." As the pandemic raged on, consuming every semblance of normal life, I found a similar sense of comfort in my nightly walks through the silenced city. I wasn't the only one. Hopper seemed to have resurfaced into our collective psyche at a time we needed him most.
That same March, a viral tweet by the author Michael Tisserand proclaimed, "We are all Edward Hopper paintings now."
Dark City. Images of the pandemic nights in New York City.
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