Ghostly virus-era NYC, captured from a motorbike

April 14, 2020 Ted Anthony AP National Writer
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In its best days, in its highest moments, New York City is dizzying.

Times Square glows. Penn Station pulses. Wall Street teems with the ambitious. The highways are jammed with trucks and taxis and Ubers and Lyfts, transporting the life of the city — its people, its goods — to and fro. Underneath it all, from Manhattan to the boroughs and back, industrial-strength subways carry industrial-strength people of all shapes and hues from home to work and back again.

Then there are the worst days, the hardest moments. These days. Today, New York City is dizzying in a different way.

A man smokes a cigarette while waiting to cross a street in the Brooklyn. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

For now, it has become a place of familiar landmarks and well-trodden streets thrown off kilter by an invisible adversary that is taking some of its people away and terrifying the rest.

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How to understand this city of cities at this moment in time? How to see it as it really feels, to chronicle it as it is knocked back, if not knocked down?

Photographer Wong Maye-E and photo editor Enric Marti found a way. On his motorcycle — with him driving and her shooting — they moved across a phantom city overflowing with the things that weren’t happening, chronicling the daily life that was not taking place.

Buildings in Brooklyn and Manhattan separated by the East River are seen from the Williamsburg Bridge. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

Day after day, from mid-March until last week, 12 rides in all, they made different loops around the city. Greenwich Village to Gowanus. Lower Manhattan to Harlem. Red Hook to Elmhurst. Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx: on avenues and on side streets, over bridges and across parkways and expressways.

Marti chose the routes as they went, using his photographer’s eye to make driving choices, sometimes listening to the unforgettable New York music of Lou Reed.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish person walks along a sidewalk in Williamsburg. Wong Maye-E/AP

Wong, perched on the back, worked fast with an eye honed in places from Myanmar to North Korea, choosing her moments to illustrate the life of a city on pause. Sometimes they were so in sync, so wrapped in this strange world, that he would pause and point, and she would have already seen the shot and raised her lens.

In many of these images, the people are what’s missing. They are not where they should be. In others, a few tread where throngs usually walk, an unsettling sight in itself. Wong and Marti captured restaurants, closed. Taxis lined up, parked and unoccupied. Wide highways, unwelcoming in their emptiness. People, alone where the crowds should be.

A man wearing a mask waits at a crosswalk while an electronic sign in front of a Catholic church flashes a message in Spanish, reading “Our faith is greater than our fear.”
Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

The bike — its bumps, its turns, its quickness — made the photography more challenging. Somehow, though, as they suspected, it also pulled out the character of the city in a way that matched this odd moment: a bit crooked, a bit skewed, as if, all at once, it was New York and it wasn’t.

For those who do not call New York home, the city flashes in and out of consciousness, served up in establishing shots and TV credits. “Taxi.” “The Sopranos.” “Law & Order.” “Sex and the City.” Because of this, most of us — the non-New Yorkers among us — tend to consume the city in quick and fragmented images.

An ambulance turns the corner beneath the Flushing Avenue subway station. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

What Wong and Marti discovered and corralled is the documentary version of this — the snippets and snatches of a city served up as as it really is right now, constricted and claustrophobic in all its shell-shocked glory. And still, strangely, cinematic.

A lone jogger. A tentative street crosser. A man, sitting on an overpass alone. Straight things and square things, served up at oblique angles. Items in the foreground that shouldn’t be there. Other things reaching in from the side. Motorcycle mirrors making cameo appearances to show that these were not moments planned and blocked, but moments snagged before the hibernating city reclaimed them once more.

A man gazes out of a window of a restaurant as he adjusts potted plants. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

This album — street photography in the metaphorical and literal senses, most of it entirely uncropped — is an album of images, of course. But it is also an album of the senses, of what it feels like to do what most of us cannot and would not: wander the city while it is a ghost and see what we find. “The whole idea,” says Wong, “was to make it a stolen moment.”

Many of New York’s moments have, in fact, been stolen in these most recent weeks of its life. Pieces of the city have waited for its people to come back before, though never quite like this. And just as before, the city waits for its people. If the past is any indication, they will return.

But not yet.

Two police officers stand on a street corner to encourage social distancing. Photo: Wong Maye-E/AP

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