As the Covid-19 pandemic intensified in New York City in March, Sarah Blesener was searching for a way to bring a sense of intimacy and depth to her documentation of the virus.
“It was a very confusing time for everyone but especially as a photographer, ‘How do you do this safely, and how does this go beyond the news narrative?” she said, explaining the genesis of a months-long visual collaboration with her 80-year-old landlord, Blanche Romey.
After moving into an apartment upstairs from Romey about two years ago, Blesener had developed a friendship with her landlord, a community activist in their Bushwick neighborhood, but she had not previously envisioned producing a photography project about Romey. However, their proximity provided Blesener an opportunity to document Romey’s life during the pandemic for an exhibition at the International Center of Photography (ICP).
“The initial idea was to look at [Romey’s] experience. I thought it would be more about isolation and the effects of it, but what it turned out to be was the ways in which she combats that daily,” Blesener said.
In March, the ICP had commissioned Blesener (@sarahblesener)and four other alumni of the school’s one-year certificate program -- Yuki Iwamura, Jeenah Moon, Gaia Squarci, and Jeff Mermelstein -- to create work in response to the pandemic. The exhibit, COVID NEW YORK. is currently on display at the ICP in lower Manhattan after the institution reopened October 1 to the public, and is scheduled to run through December 31.
“Breaking with expectations of themselves and the medium, [the photographers] experimented in pursuit of visual strategies to shed important light upon what the people of the city endured that month,” ICP’s description of the show states.
Each photographer took their own approach to the commission.
Moon decided to focus on how New Yorkers continued with their daily lives, as well as personal protective equipment discarded on the streets and sidewalks.
“I saw all of the gloves, but where are the people?” she said in a video about her work published by the ICP.
She also spoke about the frightened reactions people had to her when she was photographing and the emotional toll of witnessing what was happening in her city. “Every day you hear there are so many sad things. I like the moment that people are supporting each other during the hard times,” she said, describing her photographs of the 7 p.m. cheering for healthcare workers that took place daily in New York City.
For Squarci, an Italian photographer living in Crown Heights, photography provided her with an outlet to combat a feeling of “passively suffering.”
“What I had as an idea was writing a diary that could be seen and read by the grandchildren that I believe I’ll never have as a science fiction story from the past because everything that we are living now especially at the beginning seemed so alien,” she said in a video published by the ICP.
Her work, titled In No Time, references the unprecedented nature of the pandemic.
“I really wanted to convey the feeling that time had stopped. When I went to Manhattan, it was the silence that I was struck by, not the emptiness. You could hear a bicycle go by or the steps of a couple of people walking. For anyone who’s ever been in Manhattan, that is really an eerie feeling,” she said.
After the exhibit opened, Blesener visited the ICP with Romey to see the show and several other installations currently on display. Blesner said her landlord enjoyed seeing photographs of her and her community, as well as work produced around the world during the pandemic.
“She was inspired by seeing the kinds of emotions and solidarity that was being shown,” Blesener said.
For tickets, visit the ICP website.