We think of New York as “the city that never sleeps,” but photographer Duane Michals has shown a different side of the metropolis. In his series Empty New York, he presents pictures of Manhattan, shot in 1964 and 1965, like a ghost town. It lacks the typical hustle and bustle we’ve come to expect from the urban island. Restaurants are without patrons and local bakeries have nothing to show in their window displays. Shot on black and white film, the deserted scenes are as eerie as they are quiet, and they invite us to meditate on what’s left behind. It stands in opposition to other portraits of New York, which often implore us to observe the dizzying crowd of city dwellers.
With such a unique viewpoint, it’s hard to believe that photography wasn’t Michals’ intended career path. He originally arrived in Manhattan in 1956 to study graphic design. After a trip to the USSR in 1958, he discovered his love for photography; the New York photos represent some of his earliest work. Michals was inspired to capture the city as an empty land after seeing a documentary called Atget about the French photographer Eugène Atget, who presented Paris in a similarly abandoned way. Michals then began walking Manhattan at dawn and dusk to snap photos of the seemingly deserted city. What he shows us, however, is that despite the lack of people, the metropolis is itself a vibrant character and exists just fine without the crowds.
Michals’ work has been compiled into a book called Empty New York, published by Enitharmon Editions, which features over 200 photos of the city made during the middle of the 20th century. It is now available on Amazon.