Writer and photographer Bill Hayes has a well-documented love of the Big Apple. His books include Insomniac City, a paean to New York and a memoir of his life with his late partner, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks, and How New York Breaks Your Heart, a collection of street photographs featuring everyday New Yorkers. When the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the city, normally thronged with tourists, went quiet, and Hayes opted to chronicle the moment. In How We Live Now (Bloomsbury, Aug.), he mixes diaristic essays and photos, offering readers an armchair journey into what was, until recently, the heart of the pandemic. Hayes spoke with PW in June about capturing the city under lockdown.
You typically photograph people—did you find documenting a deserted city challenging?
In many ways I think it was really good for me as a photographer. I moved to New York 11 years ago, bought a good camera, taught myself how to use it, and began doing street photography. But after publishing How New York Breaks Your Heart, which is filled with street portraits, I sort of felt like I’d done so much of it. There was definitely something about this book that challenged me to do a new kind of street photography. As I ventured out in those early days, not finding people on the street to photograph like I was used to—it was very unsettling. There was a feeling of, “This is not the city I know.” But it caused me to look at the city in a different way, and find beauty in it, and find the sadness in it, and just capture it for what it is. I was almost doing a kind of landscape photography in the city.
With the city on lockdown, and fear of contagion running high, did you ever feel like you were taking a risk by stepping outside to shoot?
When I made this agreement with my editor and signed a contract, she made me promise—I held up my hand and promised—that I would keep safe. And I was. But even so, even before people were wearing masks, I could see the fear in their faces. Fear about what was happening, but also fear as I approached and introduced myself. There was that feeling in the air that made it much more intense than anything I’ve ever done. I found it eerie, and I also felt sort of lucky. I thought, “I’m so glad I got to see this, and that I can capture it for other people, who aren’t able to venture out of their homes and see what this is like.”
Why did you also include photos you’d taken before the pandemic?
Those pre-pandemic photographs are there to show what it was like as little as a year ago. A good example might be the photograph Girl in a White Dress, which was taken on Gay Pride Day almost a year ago. It’s a bunch of young kids on a stoop, clearly having a great time, coming from the parade. This year, that’s not going to happen. To me those photos are bittersweet, and remind us of what we’ve had, and hopefully what we can have again. I’m not completely hopeless.