At the beginning of his new book, How We Live Now, New York writer and photographer Bill Hayes makes a long list of things he wants to remember. Anything that now seems forbidden, if not impossible. “The last time I shook a stranger’s hand, the last time I went to the gym … that I went swimming … that I took the metro … that I took a plane … that I kissed someone … that I went to bed … that I passed a rod … that I went to the restaurant … that I shared a lift without worrying … that I wasn’t afraid … that I wasn’t as scared as I am now ». For anyone who has lived through this terrible and clarifying period, it is a completely familiar list. As he had already shown with Insomniac City, his previous memoir with photographs, Hayes has the ability to open the particularity of his experience to the point of making us feel part of it.
It started How We Live Now – out in August for Bloomsbury with the subtitle Scenes from the Pandemic – in mid-March, when New York entered quarantine. He closed it with a post scriptum about 100 days later, when the city, on the eve of a gradual reopening, was galvanized, and almost paralyzed, by demonstrations against police violence.
“A Kiss at the Farmer’s Market”, 11 April 2020, image by Bill Hayes from “How We Live Now” (Bloomsbury).
© Bill Hayes
Whether using a laptop or a camera, Hayes is an acute observer, sensitive to the pain, resilience and spirit of New York and New Yorkers. His book – partly memoir, partly diary – is mostly anecdotal, punctuated by bulletins that follow the birth of a love story, and is inspired by a phrase that his last partner, the writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks he said shortly before he died in 2015: “The best we can do is write – with intelligence, creativity, critical sense, and in an evocative way – of what it is like to live in the world these days”. Hayes does just that, managing to be personal in an intense and touching way. She inserts her to-do lists and exercise routines (then notes that she has been almost entirely abandoned) along with a disturbing daily count of the number of deaths for Covid-19 in the United States.
What he calls, from the beginning, “an upheaval in the universe”, manifests itself in large and small scale, but above all at street level, where Hayes continues to photograph and keep in touch with the neighborhood shopkeepers, some of whom with the virus I got away with it. Although the photos of deserted streets and empty subway cars touch us because of their familiarity, the true emotional heart of the book is the portraits of people. The images taken before the pandemic remember how naturally we once went out and hugged each other. But tenderness remains. The couple above, glimpsed in April at a neighborhood organic market, have their masks lowered for a kiss as proof that, although the city had withdrawn in itself, love never closes its doors.
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Vince Aletti is a photographic critic and curator. He has lived and worked in New York since 1967. Collaborator of “Aperture”, “Artforum”, “Apartamento” and “Photograph”, he was co-author of “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000”, published by Harry N. Abrams in 2009, and signed “Issues: A History of Photography in Fashion Magazines”, published by Phaidon in 2019.