Photographer Captures New York at its ‘Worst and its Very Best’

Phil Penman New York photography

Wandering the empty streets of New York during the dark days of the COVID-19 pandemic, photographer Phil Penman captured the city at one of its lowest ebbs.

“I have mixed emotions about this time,” Penman tells PetaPixel. “It was very sad to see the streets I love boarded up, due to the rise in shoplifting and theft.”

Phil Penman photography

Phil Penman photography

Despite the bleak times, Penman found comfort in chance conversations with strangers as people yearned for human connection during a period when authorities were enforcing lockdowns.

“This is New York at its worst and its very best,” says Penman. “The images take you on a journey. Quiet streets of New York like we have never seen before right through to the characters and personalities on the street that were less fortunate and had nowhere else to go.”

Phil Penman photography

Phil Penman photography

“I spent a great deal of time wandering the streets documenting everything and anything I saw,” he continues. “I found the conversations I had with people on the street helped me mentally and appreciate just how much we all need each other. Zoom calls were nice but no substitute for talking with people in the flesh.”

Big Empty Apple

Penman’s photos play on isolationist themes, amplified by the Leica Monochrom camera he chose to shot the project on. Like any street photographer, he knows patience is a virtue.

“Coming from the U.K. and knowing how much the rain just sucks, I now find myself looking for the bleak weather to act as a backdrop for the characters I like to capture,” he explains.

“I know from my 30 years on the streets that those extraordinary moments are few and far between. It requires a lot of man hours on the street walking and observing. If you go out with the mindset that you are going to get these images all the time you are setting yourself up for failure.”

Phil Penman photography

Phil Penman photography

Phil Penman photography

Despite hailing from Britain, Penman says he is “very much a New Yorker” after living there for 23 years. He points to Arnold Newman, Elliot Erwitt, and Josef Koudelka as influences but one inspires him more than others.

“Always have to go with Salgado on this one. From both a photographic point of view but also as a businessman and the way in which he handles himself with projects he chooses to do,” he says.

Phil Penman photography

Phil Penman photography

Penman has built an enviable following online with his Instagram page boasting 180,000 followers.

“Back when I started photographers had to have the gatekeepers approve of them and maybe they could have a career,” he says.

“These days young photographers don’t realize how great it is. You now can build an audience and make money doing something you love without going to the gatekeepers. Many photographers now can reach millions of people every month.”

Photographer Phil Penman.
The cover of Penman’s book New York Street Diaries.

His photos have been collated into a book called New York Street Diaries which is published by teNeues.

More of Penman’s work can be found on his Instagram and website.

Image credits: Photographs by Phil Penman