When the COVID-19 pandemic hit New York City last March, I spent the first weeks of lockdown in my apartment, sick with a mild case. It was just me and my toddler, who was, thankfully, not sick at all. In fact, she had more energy than ever. She thrust picture books into my hands, threw raspberries at the walls, tried to put diapers on our precious single tube of Clorox wipes, and did not understand why we weren’t ever leaving the house. Our recycling piled up because I did not want to take my virus-laced breath anywhere. Every night during her bath, the 7 p.m. cheering for front-line workers erupted around us like a clattering, unruly, holy chorus. In those lonely days—trapped in my city and missing my city at once—I kept thinking of Basho’s haiku about Kyoto:
Even in Kyoto—
hearing the cuckoo’s cry—
I long for Kyoto.
The city outside our windows felt far away because we couldn’t be in it, and intimately close because the sirens were constant. Each wailing ambulance was a reminder not just of our swelling hospitals but also of the strangers all around, listening to these same sirens from their separate quarters. We were all going through something together, separately.
During those same early weeks of lockdown, on the other side of the East River, the photographer Dina Litovsky started taking nighttime walks through Manhattan to document the empty streets of a city whose streets were never empty—setting out as soon as it got dark and then returning home two or three hours later. She captured glimpses of the ghost town and its solitary citizens: a man in a red mask standing beneath the cherry-red letters of a Rite Aid awning; a sanitation worker in a hazmat suit descending into the orange glow of the Broadway-Lafayette subway stop; a man jumping rope under streetlights outside the old Village Voice offices. In one photograph, a man in a down jacket and a stiff white mask is walking his dog—a little caramel-colored terrier in a blue-and-orange Knicks sweater—and is turning the corner under the glare of floodlights. Litovsky told me that in those early days of the pandemic, the city felt to her like an empty stage, and you can see it in this photo—the urban landscape as a stage, the sand-colored bricks and clustered cherry blossoms illuminated as if spot lit above the man and his dog. I can remember the cherry blossoms last spring, how they felt like an affront, almost—how dare the spring deliver its regular beauties, as if the world wasn’t ending? But it was important to Litovsky to capture that beauty too. She wanted her photographs to feel melancholic but also magical, to hold not just the loss of those days but also the eerie enchantment of the city—how it felt fully hers, in its emptiness, but also not itself.
In crafting these visions of the plague city at night, Litovsky was drawing inspiration from Edward Hopper’s paintings of nighttime solitude—not just his evocations of loneliness, but his visions of artificial light as a kind of refuge. You can see these fleeting pockets of refuge all over her city: the emerald orbs of green subway markers; the buttery rectangles of apartment windows; the cold candy-colored affluence of neon; the small islands of incandescence carved by signs and stoplights in the darkness. She would often find the right light, she told me, and then wait for an hour or more for a single person to come by. She returned to the same red light by a subway stop five times, just waiting for someone—anyone—to walk through it.
Litovsky knew from the beginning that she wanted to photograph in color, not black-and-white: All the pandemic photography she was seeing was black-and-white, but color was important to her because it made the images feel immersive and contemporary. She didn’t want there to be anything distanced in these images, like glimpses of a bygone era. She wanted them to bring you right into the streets, to make you feel encompassed and surrounded by their eerie mood. Much of Litovsky’s work focuses on groups and social dynamics—she has photographed Amish communities vacationing in Florida, debutante balls, protests, nightlife in the Meatpacking District, the elaborate pageantries and choreographies of partying. Capturing the isolation and social distancing of the pandemic required an entirely different practice—formally, aesthetically, and emotionally. She had always thought of herself as bad at photographing stillness, she told me—but now the city was full of that stillness. The pandemic forced her to explore photography that was—in many senses at once—the opposite of anything she’d ever done. She’d always photographed groups, now groups were impossible. She’d always photographed close-up, now she was photographing from far away. She’d never photographed landscapes, now she was photographing the city as a landscape, topographically. She’d always photographed more cerebrally—a research-driven practice, more like ethnography—and now she was photographing emotion, trying to portray the collective mood of a city.
On her nighttime photography walks, Litovsky became fascinated by objects that seemed “unmoored” because they were no longer in use, seeking out surveillance cameras with no one to surveil. In this quest for unmoored objects, she was inspired by the painter Giorgio de Chirico, particularly the way his paintings deconstruct urban spaces and the functions of the city—the way his works divorce objects from their functions by removing them from their familiar contexts.
At one point, Litovsky wanted to find a place in the city where you could look down on people from above, and eventually realized you could do this from the stairway of the Roosevelt Island Tram station. Looking at these images, I realize their vantage summoned a powerful dimension of that early-pandemic era: How many of us were seeing strangers from above because we were looking out of our windows, desperate for the people we were no longer among.
Nowhere is this longing for strangers more palpable than in all of Litovsky’s photographs of lit windows. Of course she saw them everywhere, when she took her nighttime walks through the empty city: All the people who were not with her on the sidewalks were behind them. One of her photographs shows four windows: the upper two with their blinds drawn, refusing access; the lower two showing a man in a black tank top and a shih tzu with a lolling tongue, poised eagerly at the glass, no doubt looking at its own reflection—windows usually offer us our own faces, when we look out at the night—but looking eager for so much more, its posture saying what so many of us felt in those early months, and even now, in this ongoingness: Let me out.
Another photograph shows three windows in a brick building at the corner of Avenue A and Tompkins, in the heart of the East Village: a bearded man standing above a steaming wok, smiling, above a roll of paper towels and a small flock of condiments. The window offers a glimpse of his pleasure as well as all the small mysteries surrounding it: Was he cooking for his family? For his boyfriend? For himself? Was he working late that night? Had he just lost his job?
These lit windows become symbols not just of all the barriers between us—all we could do was gaze at one another from six feet away, from the other side of walls—but also our longing, not just for loved ones but for strangers, our hunger to be returned to one another’s company.