March 22, 2022
Photographing personal space in the pandemic
Soon after the term “social distancing” entered the language, the photographer Renate Aller decided to document what staying six feet apart from other people looked like. She invited friends over, one at a time, or invited herself to where they live. Either way, she stayed outside. She placed two chairs on the sidewalk in front of her building in SoHo — or theirs, when she went visiting — and put her camera across the street, setting the timer to take nine shots, with three seconds between each one.
Then she crossed the street, walked into the pictures and sat down. Sometimes she and the other person in each image looked into the camera. Sometimes they looked at each other. Sometimes they danced. Always they were six feet apart — thus the title “Sidewalk, 6’ Apart in New York City” for an exhibition of the photographs at the New-York Historical Society.
It was the first time in weeks that many of the people in the photographs had encountered others in the outside world. Aller contrasted those early weeks of the pandemic with the first few weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks that destroyed the World Trade Center in 2001. Then, Aller said, “People were scared to be outside. This was the opposite. We were scared to be inside.”
James Barron is a Metro reporter and columnist. He wrote the Coronavirus Update column for the print edition from March 2020 until May of this year, part of The Times’s coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize for public service. He wrote the minute-by-minute stories on the 9/11 attacks in 2001 for nytimes.com, the first stories The Times had assigned to be written in real time for its website. He also wrote the lead stories about the Northeast blackout in 2003, Hurricane Irene in 2010 and Hurricane Sandy in 2012. He is the author of two books — “Piano: The Making of a Steinway Concert Grand” and “The One-Cent Magenta” — and was the editor of “The New York Times Book of New York.”
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