The big picture: a glimpse of tenderness in New York, 1980

By Tim Adams
New York City, August 1980 by Bob Watkins.
New York City, August 1980 by Bob Watkins. Photograph: Bob Watkins

Bob Watkins took this photograph of a couple in New York on his first visit to the city from England in August 1980. In the years before Mayor Giuliani’s zero-tolerance crackdown on crime, and the advance of gentrification, the city was a place of maximum tolerance, where anything could happen at any moment. For Watkins, who had specialised in photographing the ironies of Englishness and its traditions, this was both a challenge and a liberation.

That summer, he recalls, in a monograph of his pictures from that time, “both the city and myself were out of money and there was a sense of danger on every corner. Emerging from the subway on to Fifth Avenue for the first time I was assaulted by the humidity, stench and magnitude of that canyon. It was like stepping into Springsteen’s Born to Run album. Garbage and broken people filled the streets as I walked the same sidewalks as my photographic heroes and drank Dr Pepper to replace the sweat.” There were moments where the energy of the streets coalesced – “Democratic Convention rallies and Iranian hostage demonstrations added extra visual opportunities,” Watkins recalls, but it was the unpredictability of those streets that he remembers most clearly.

Perhaps as a respite, in among that heat and noise, Watkins’s camera seemed anxious to search out little moments of intimacy and quiet. The couple in this picture seem momentarily oblivious to their chaotic backdrop, the urgency of the taxi cabs and the apparent lassitude of the people in the background. The haircuts establish them in that time and place, but the loving gestures feel timeless, as if staged for a movie. Are they parting for the last time or meeting for the first time? The more you look, the harder it is to tell.

  • Bob Watkins: New York City 1980–2005 is published by Café Royal Books


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