The intoxicating smell of pine trees has ushered in another holiday season. And, like clockwork, this is the time of year when I start to feel uncharacteristically sentimental. A little while ago, I read about a phenomenon in which people have actually started missing the dark days of lockdown. I found that rather strange. But this week, I realized, I am one of them. Those three weeks of quarantine in spring of 2020 have already become a hazy dream, and as always happens with a bit of distance, they are now cloaked in a fuzzy shawl of nostalgia.
At the time, the loudest emotions were shock and fear, anxiety and claustrophobia. But there was also a strange coziness, a pause from the usual incessant timeline of plans and obligations. The monotony, though seemingly unbearable in the beginning, became soothing. There were no weekdays, no weekends, and no FOMO.
My therapy during quarantine was going out, almost every night, to photograph in Manhattan where I live. During the day, the tragedy of the pandemic was ever-present and palpable. The city seemed completely subdued by the virus, the silence of grey streets shattered only by frantic ambulances. But the moment the sun set, the city transformed once again, becoming eerily beautiful. At twilight, all the lights turned on as usual — the neon signs, the colorful LED screens and warm streetlights — illuminating Manhattan as an empty film noir set. Walking for hours, I got to see the city devoid of distractions. Unexpectedly, the intimidating New York City which can swallow up people in its gargantuan anonymity became intimate and somehow private.
Zombie spring, April.
Looking through Dark City returns me to that state of temporal flux I felt going out in the evenings. Each image feels like a fleeting hallucination, an interrupted moment in our collective timeline. The spaces I photographed have since been reclaimed by the crowds and the urban landscape changed once again to a familiar version of the city. Only an occasional, masked passerby reveals traces of a pandemic that's still very much around us.
It's those uncanny moments of silence that I miss the most about the spring of 2020. They gave me the space to reset and recalibrate while bringing me closer to a city that I've spent more than a decade photographing. Below, I've picked out some images of a New York that feels both hyperreal and, already, unrecognizable.
March. The first night that I went out to photograph.
April in East Village. Dog walkers seemed to be the only people left in the city.
I first thought this was a real dog, its size stopping me in my tracks. Then, I slowly realized it's a poster. Walking around the city was disorienting, the usual objects and streets becoming suddenly unfamiliar. This juxtaposition captured that for me.
This man in front of the pharmacy seemed to be waiting to be beamed into a spaceship. I wanted to capture the overall silence of the city by focusing on people standing perfectly still, a previously unusual sight in the incessantly hectic metropolis.
I went back to this train station in Soho more times than any other location, trying to capture the red of the LED advertisement. Sometimes an hour would pass by before seeing a single person. One night this guy was disinfecting the stairway. This was exactly the shot I needed and I never went back.
May, Astor Place. I stumbled on this guy jumping rope in an otherwise totally empty square. In that light, he seemed to be levitating, and I had to take the photo. He saw and ignored me, as if I were a ghost.
All objects in the city have lost their usual function. Traffic lights were directing no one, surveillance cameras surveilling nothing. This is my husband, waiting for me on the other side of the street. He often walked with me to make sure I stayed safe.
The sign under the cross says, "There is hope."
The first couple of months, almost all the images were of men. Very few women were out alone at night. I took this in May from the top of the Roosevelt Island Tram station.
June, a couple of weeks after the end of quarantine. People started reappearing – two, sometimes three on the same block. It felt wild.
End of June. The first interaction I witnessed on the street in three months.
Cafe Wha, April.
Cafe Wha, July.
August. First week of outdoor dining.
September. Past, present and future.
✨All these images are part of my annual Holiday print sale that starts today. Open edition fine art prints are half-off. ✨
You can find more info on my Instagram or email me for details.
Find me on Instagram @dina_litovsky
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