My Project: Deserted New York City

Christopher Thomas photographs a bustling city at rest

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Long exposures erased New York’s traffic and crowds, both outdoors and in landmark buildings, and gave these photos a timeless feel.Christopher Thomas

When Munich-based photographer Christopher Thomas looks at contemporary photos of cities, he longs to see the landscape without city traffic. “I miss the pureness of images from 100 years ago, where you could see the architecture without cars and pedestrians,” he says.

So when he first took an apartment in New York in 2000—where he would live part-time for 10 years—he decided to try to capture the city without the traffic, using extremely long exposures on Polaroid Type 55 film in his Linhof 4x5 camera. He took up the project in earnest in 2007, and the haunting and melancholic series, “New York Sleeps,” was shown at the Stephen Kasher gallery in 2009.

He started with well-known landmarks such as the Flatiron Building and Grand Central Terminal. To avoid crowds, he’d arrive very early in the day or late at night, setting up his tripod for exposures of up to 10 minutes.

Obstacles abounded: Drivers would park in front of the camera and refuse to move, and sites such as Madison Square Park required a permit. In the nonstop traffic of Times Square, he would cover his lens whenever cabs approached.

He later sought out more off-beat areas by biking to NYC's outer boroughs. “I’d look for locations with a certain solitude and with graphically beautiful views of architecture,” Thomas says.

Many times, he shot during snowfall to help blur out pedestrian traffic. In other cases, his film, which produced both an instant print and a negative for later, proved helpful. Once, making a print of some Bronx kids convinced them to stay out of his shot. Another time, when he scaled a fence into a residential parking lot in the Rockaways, offending some tenants, his photographs won them over. “They came out yelling and threatening to call the police,” he says. “But after I showed them the prints, they invited me to dinner.”

Looking back, Thomas cherishes his memories as well as the images. “I’d be waiting for ages in the freezing cold, or I’d be sharing sandwiches with a gardener I’d just met,” he says. “Each one was an experience.”

Christopher Thomas’ 2009 book, New York Sleeps, was published by Prestel USA.

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