During the 1950s, New York's Museum of Modern Art organised a famous photo exhibition called The Family of Man. In the wake of a world war, the show, chockablock with pictures of people, celebrated humanity's cacophony, resilience and common bond.

Today a different global calamity has made scarcity the necessary condition of humanity's survival. Cafes along the Navigli in Milan hunker behind shutters along with the Milanese who used to sip aperos beside the canal. New York's Times Square is a ghost town, as are the City of London and the Place de la Concorde in Paris during what used to be the morning rush.

Photographs all tell a similar story: a temple in Indonesia; Haneda Airport in Tokyo; the Americana Diner in New Jersey. Emptiness proliferates like the virus.

The Place de la Concorde in Paris during the morning rush hour, March 18, 2020. Photo / Andrea Mantovani, The New York Times
The Place de la Concorde in Paris during the morning rush hour, March 18, 2020. Photo / Andrea Mantovani, The New York Times

The New York Times recently sent dozens of photographers out to capture images of once-bustling public plazas, beaches, fairgrounds, restaurants, movie theaters, tourist meccas and train stations. Public spaces, as we think of them today, trace their origins back at least to the agoras of ancient Greece. Hard to translate, the word "agora" in Homer suggested "gathering." Eventually it came to imply the square or open space at the center of a town or city, the place without which Greeks did not really regard a town or city as a town or city at all, but only as an assortment of houses and shrines.

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Thousands of years later, public squares and other spaces remain bellwethers and magnets, places to which we gravitate for pleasure and solace, to take our collective temperature, celebrate, protest. Following the uprisings in Tiananmen Square, Tahrir Square, Taksim Square and elsewhere, yellow vest protesters in France demonstrated their discontent last year not by starting a GoFundMe page but by occupying public sites like the Place de la République and the Place de l'Opéra in Paris.

Living quarters are lit up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday, March 19, 2020, where many people are staying home because of the coronavirus. Photo / Victor Moriyama, The New York Times
Living quarters are lit up in Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Wednesday, March 19, 2020, where many people are staying home because of the coronavirus. Photo / Victor Moriyama, The New York Times

Both of those squares were built during the 19th century as part of a master plan by a French official, Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann, who remade vast swaths of Paris after the city passed new health regulations in 1850 to combat disease. Beset by viruses and other natural disasters, cities around the world have time and again devised new infrastructure and rewritten zoning regulations to ensure more light and air, and produced public spaces, buildings and other sites, including some of the ones photographed, that promised to improve civic welfare and that represented new frontiers of civic aspiration.

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. COVID-19 doesn't vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

At Palazzo Marino in Milan, headquarters of the municipality of the city, chairs are placed outdoors and at a safe distance before a meeting, March 20. Photo / Alessandro Grassani, The New York Times
At Palazzo Marino in Milan, headquarters of the municipality of the city, chairs are placed outdoors and at a safe distance before a meeting, March 20. Photo / Alessandro Grassani, The New York Times

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

I don't mean that buildings and fairgrounds and railway stations and temples can't look eerily beautiful empty. Some of these sites, and the photographs of them, are works of art. I mean that empty buildings, squares and beaches are what art history textbooks, boutique hotel advertisements and glossy shelter and travel magazines tend to traffic in. Their emptiness trumpets an existence mostly divorced from human habitation and the messy thrum of daily life. They imagine an experience more akin to the wonder of bygone explorers coming upon the remains of a lost civilisation.

They evoke the romance of ruins.

Beauty entails something else. It is something we bestow.

It will be the moment we return.

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London

This is what rush hour looks like now in a major metropolis.

Photo / Andrew Testa, The New York Times
Photo / Andrew Testa, The New York Times

Munich

A subway without commuters.

Photo / Laetitia Vancon, The New York Times
Photo / Laetitia Vancon, The New York Times

Moscow

The seats were empty at rehearsal, and remained so for the online performance.

Photo / Sergey Ponomarev, The New York Times
Photo / Sergey Ponomarev, The New York Times

Beijing

A lone diner in a neighbourhood known for its nightlife.

Photo / Gilles Sabrié, The New York Times
Photo / Gilles Sabrié, The New York Times

Caracas

Day 2 of Venezuela's nationwide quarantine.

Photo / Adriana Loureiro Fernandez, The New York Times
Photo / Adriana Loureiro Fernandez, The New York Times

Los Angeles

An unchanging ocean, a barely recognisable beach in Santa Monica.

Photo / Philip Cheung, The New York Times
Photo / Philip Cheung, The New York Times

Barcelona

Pigeons had Las Ramblas to themselves.

Photo / Maria Contreras Coll, The New York Times
Photo / Maria Contreras Coll, The New York Times

New Jersey

The Americana Diner in West Orange was open — but only for takeout.

Photo / Bryan Anselm, The New York Times
Photo / Bryan Anselm, The New York Times

Srinagar, India

In a tourist season without tourists, boats without passengers.

Photo / Atul Loke, The New York Times
Photo / Atul Loke, The New York Times

Bangkok

Streets of fear in a city popular with Chinese visitors from Wuhan.

Photo / Amanda Mustard, The New York Times
Photo / Amanda Mustard, The New York Times

Berlin

Keep your distance: That is the plea from the German government.

Photo / Emile Ducke, The New York Times
Photo / Emile Ducke, The New York Times

New Delhi

A day at the fair in Red Fort.

Photo / Saumya Khandelwal, The New York Times
Photo / Saumya Khandelwal, The New York Times

Rome

The view from the Spanish Steps.

Photo / Alessandro Penso, The New York Times
Photo / Alessandro Penso, The New York Times

Washington

Even cherry blossom season did not draw visitors to the Lincoln Memorial.

Photo / Alyssa Schukar, The New York Times
Photo / Alyssa Schukar, The New York Times

Tokyo

When the world stops travelling.

Photo / Noriko Hayashi, The New York Times
Photo / Noriko Hayashi, The New York Times

Seoul

South Korea's outbreak was, for weeks, the worst outside China.

Photo / Woohae Cho, The New York Times
Photo / Woohae Cho, The New York Times

Seattle

A hot dog was as unlikely as a visit to the Space Needle.

Photo / Grant Hindsley, The New York Times
Photo / Grant Hindsley, The New York Times

Milan

The Navigli, where the Milanese often gather at the end of the day.

Photo / Alessandro Grassani, The New York Times
Photo / Alessandro Grassani, The New York Times

San Francisco

California residents have been ordered to stay home.

Photo / Rozette Rago, The New York Times
Photo / Rozette Rago, The New York Times

Rawalpindi, Pakistan

No standees, and few seat takers.

Photo / Saiyna Bashir, The New York Times
Photo / Saiyna Bashir, The New York Times

New York

A major transit hub, the Oculus, in a city no longer on the move.

Photo / Victor J. Blue, The New York Times
Photo / Victor J. Blue, The New York Times

Yangon, Myanmar

Nothing to see here: Tourists used to come for the panoramic view.

Photo / Minzayar Oo, The New York Times
Photo / Minzayar Oo, The New York Times

São Paulo

The last picture show, or one of them, before theaters were shut.

Photo / Victor Moriyama, The New York Times
Photo / Victor Moriyama, The New York Times

Siem Reap, Cambodia

No visits to Angkor Wat, and no Pub Street toasts afterward.

Photo / Adam Dean, The New York Times
Photo / Adam Dean, The New York Times

Sydney, Australia

Sunset is normally prime photo-taking time at the Opera House.

Photo / Matthew Abbott, The New York Times
Photo / Matthew Abbott, The New York Times

Hong Kong

A popular viewing point, but few takers.

Photo / Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times
Photo / Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times

Yogyakarta, Indonesia

Only the buildings needed guarding at a temple complex.

Photo / Ulet Ifansasti, The New York Times
Photo / Ulet Ifansasti, The New York Times

Paris

The view is still there, the viewers far less so.

Photo / Andrea Mantovani, The New York Times
Photo / Andrea Mantovani, The New York Times

Bogotá, Colombia

An empty cloverleaf tells the story of a city on lockdown.

Photo / Federico Rios, The New York Times
Photo / Federico Rios, The New York Times

Tehran

Happy New Year: The Persian New Year comes to Iran.

Photo / Arash Khamooshi, The New York Times
Photo / Arash Khamooshi, The New York Times


Written by: Michael Kimmelman
Photographs by: New York Times
© 2020 THE NEW YORK TIMES