Phil Penman, a British-born photographer based in New York, is a former winner of the Leica Fotograﬁe international Picture Prize. His book Street was published by Glitterati Editions in August 2019. (August 2019)
The taxi industry has been brutally crunched on two sides—from skyrocketing operating costs, on the one hand, and a sharp decline in business, on the other. When the bubble burst in late 2014, the value of medallions crashed, leaving drivers with no savings and deep in debt. A rash of suicides among them has followed. At the same time, those already struggling to repay loans found their income drastically reduced by competition from Uber and other ridesharing companies. Erick Castro is left shaking his head, wondering why one of the city’s most faithful and enduring modes of transportation has been the one to go.
The streets of Midtown Manhattan, especially around 42nd Street and the Port Authority Bus Terminal, have been unusually empty of the usual hordes of commuters and tourists. But their absence only makes the number of homeless people more starkly apparent. Nothing like this has been seen in the city, perhaps, since its years of being broke and broken-down in the Seventies and early Eighties. Over the past two months of lockdown, I’ve focused on the people who are still on the street or in the subway. There are two categories of people still using mass transit: essential workers and the homeless.
An eerie silence has descended New York City. Taxis drive by one after the other, lights on, searching for a rare customer. It’s so foreign to walk out onto the street and see no people. The masses of people trying to get to work, heads buried in their cellphones, are gone. Grand Central Station is a ghost town. It’s like being in a movie that’s not entertaining.
The life of a “celebrity photographer”—otherwise known as paparazzi—entails little glamour. More often than not, I was standing not on the red carpet behind a velvet rope but on the streets of New York, hiding behind a trash can in 20-degree weather, hoping for that decisive moment. The paparazzi always get a bad rap, from hiding behind trash to being called “trash.” But being on the street all day, you get a real feel for the city. In time, I found myself drawn to street photography.