The City That Finally Sleeps

Capturing the surrealness of New York in lockdown with renowned photographer Mark Seliger
By Alex James Taylor | Art | 9 July 2021
Above:

Queensboro Plaza Subway Station, April 18, 2020, 6:22pm

“[New York] all of a sudden went from normalcy to being completely empty – I mean it was literally overnight,” renowned photographer Mark Seliger tells us below. “The interesting thing is that because it was spring, nature was carrying on all around us, we were in the middle of this glorious season that everyone connects to in the city and yet there was nobody there.”

On March 20th New York Governor Andrew Cuomo ordered all nonessential businesses closed statewide, and within the space of 24 hours, the usually bustling streets suddenly emptied and the city fell into an eerie silence. During this unprecedented time, renowned photographer Mark Seliger saw New York in a new light; never before had it seemed so still, so serene – despite the chaos and sadness happening inside hospitals and homes. Soon, what began as Seliger simply documenting these surreal cityscapes for his Instagram became a fully-fledged project and now, a publication titled The City That Finally Sleeps. Drawn to the cinematic and hypnotic state his city was in, Seliger’s stark images portray New York’s almost like an abandoned film set, using layers of light and shadow to reveal new angles, contrasts and beauty – at once both familiar and alien.

Apollo Theater, April 9, 2020, 7:25pm

Alex James Taylor: How did the idea for the project arise? 
Mark Seliger: It was kind of a surprise project for everybody I think. The interesting thing is that I usually start projects more out of curiosity and I don’t know what it’s going to be, I’ve just got to follow the lead of the image. A couple of days before lockdown, I was really admiring the beauty of the West Village in its full bloom during springtime. There were cherry blossoms everywhere, it was like this very special moment in New York. And you know, everybody was getting kind of ready to go into these totally unfamiliar, unchartered waters. The city all of a sudden went from normalcy to being completely empty – I mean it was literally overnight. The interesting thing is that because it was spring, nature was carrying on all around us, we were in the middle of this glorious season that everyone connects to in the city and yet there was nobody there. As I was driving home one night into my neighbourhood, the West Village looked almost like a movie set because nobody was there. It magnifies everything so much with no people on the street, that all of a sudden areas I was familiar with took on a new stature, in a weird way. So I started to go into different neighbourhoods to document and that documentation grew until I became more and more involved in it.

It went from being a kind of Instagram experience, where people who knew New York City really were moved by the images, they were haunting yet poetic and had this real connection to the city. And everyone was on their phones probably trying to figure out what was happening in all contexts. Then Vanity Fair sort of stopped me from Instagramming so they could run a bigger story on it. Then after it ran, we continued on the project right up to the point when George Floyd was killed, then that was the end of it for the most part because the city, all of a sudden people were protesting and angry, and therefore I felt like I should sit back a little bit and deal with all this stuff in my own mind rather than with a camera. it was only two and a half, three months top.

AJT: Was there a particular time of the day you enjoyed going out?
MS: We shot at all times of the day but I would focus on mornings and evenings, and if there was clouds or rain during the day I’d go out a few times. Because I was shooting all in black and white I chose what would be the best time to shoot – so morning, evening or when it was particularly overcast.

Washington Square Park, March 31, 2020, 7:10pm

AJT: A lot of your photography tends to focus on people, how do you think your work translates that emotion to landscapes? 
MS: It’s very similar. I think of it more like a portrait of New York. I’m not a stranger to landscapes, I’ve done lots and lots of the city for myself, so there’s a real simple formula to that: you just find the moment, observe what’s happening and wait for that to reveal itself.

AJT: The lighting in the imagery is incredible, I noticed a trend of bright light almost sneaking out from darker tones…
MS: Which ones?

AJT: There’s one on a street corner where a streak of light hits a building, and also the image of Yankee Stadium.
MS: Oh wow, I’m glad you like that. So by then, sort of in the middle of the project, we’d started to actually light things with our own lights, which was pretty interesting. So we’d take the darkness and pop a light on it, that picture in particular, I think there’s a statue in Grand Central that we did that with and another of a subway cart. It almost gives the imagery a surreal bend. It’s so nice that you saw that, that’s interesting.

AJT: It’s almost like surreal sunrises, or the calm after the storm.
MS: That was the exploration, how we make it so that these different ideas have this hyper-surreal element to them, because it was so surreal being in New York with no people, no tourists, no noise of the city breathing. In some ways there was a little bit of sadness when it started opening up again, once it did it kind of changed the way we thought about it. It was really fantastic in terms of being able to move around in the city and shoot without any distractions.

AJT: You’re originally from Texas, what first attracted you to New York and does it still have that pull for you?
MS: Oh yeah, I mean I never really get tired of it. Once I came to New York, not only was I very inspired by the incredible moments here, the art, the people and the neighbourhoods, but I was also very fascinated by the girth and density of the city.

AJT: How does the city feel now things are returning to normal? 
MS: You can see there’s quite a bit of relief. Whenever you experience something like this, you can tell there’s that moment of like, questioning whether there’s going to be a resilience or not. That’s pretty common. Are you in London?

AJT: Yes, it’s the same here.
MS: It’s the same when I was there in early February. I was working and I had to quarentine for six days. It was very similar, it was a very quiet, thoughtful time for people. I do feel as if the necessity for people to reset, and for the city to reset, was actually like not a bad thing. I know it was a lot of painful for a lot of people because there was a lot of people who lost family members and it was pretty devastating, but at the same time people are looking at things in broadstrokes. It’s probably the first time that across the board people were rethinking and introspective and trying to regroup.

AJT: It makes you question certain ways that we do things…
MS: And prioritising what’s important to you.

AJT: Can you talk to me about New York Cares and why you chose to donate proceeds from the book to this organisation? 
MS: New York Cares is an organisation I found out about when we were working on a big auction charity with Sotheby’s. We had to suggest a charity for our piece we were selling and someone suggested New York Cares and when I explored them, what I loved is that it’s a grassroots, volunteer-based, local organisation established in the 80s and they’ve been very successful in bringing a high-quality and high-level of support to struggling New Yorkers, people and families, who are dealing with everything from mental care, medical care, making sure people are fed, making sure families have the right resources for education. These are all things that are important when it comes to rebuilding the city. So that felt like the right fit for me, a local, New York-based organisation that helps people through these times and through times in the future.

AJT: Lastly, I’m interested how you took the image of the Chrysler Building on the cover of the book?
MS: That was shot from the MetLife Building, a friend of mine who has a relationship with them was able to get us up there one day, shockingly enough it’d been dark and stormy for several days and then just like in a magical moment we got to the top and the sky cleared giving we had this beautiful view from midtown all the way to Long Island.

Mark Seliger: The City That Finally Sleeps is available online now – all proceeds from the sale of the book will be given to New York Cares to support their Covid-19 relief efforts.

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