The Daily Heller: See Nothing, Do Nothing

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New York is back. That motto breathes life into those whose daily lives have long been on hold. As the pandemic emptied the streets, New Yorkers went from being merely anonymous to vacant souls. For some, being a mass is preferable to vacancy.

Charles H. Traub’s new book Vacant is a series of photographs “taken in delirious months of these past several years, which closed us all off to the natural order of our lives,” Traub says. “Like the spaces herein depicted that once bustled with commerce, we are still torpid. We are suspended in a seeming unreality that is, nevertheless, the undeniable condition of our times.”

The photographs were all made with a cellphone as Traub, the chair of Photography and Related Media at School of Visual Arts, wandered throughout the streets of New York, peering into windows of vacant shops and empty public spaces. They speak to the power of vacancy to render solemnity and beauty. “First the people disappear, replaced by noise, sirens, then by nothing, not even silence, just a repetitive hum,” writes critic Lyle Rexer in the epilogue to Vacant.

It was that eerie, ever-present hum that gave me hope. I mourned the comatose city, but the hum was life support. I knew those vacant streets, stores, parks and offices would regain consciousness and New York would be New York again. For a few uncertain months I even savored those frozen moments that Traub so vividly captures in Vacant, a curiously comforting remembrance of New York emptied of all its hustle and bustle—and the soulful quietude that followed.