Photographs of London and New York crowds pre-pandemic

Photographer Jermaine Francis’s new book explores the energy, movement and rhythms of the cities as they used to be.

by Tom George
20 September 2021, 7:00am

For his 2020 photobook, Something that was so familiar becomes distant, photographer Jermaine Francis captured the city of London in the midst of a pandemic. Scenes of people lounging around parks and walking solo through once brimming, now solitary streets, littered with old mattresses and mouldy bread, were photographed from March through to November.

Then, for The Faith in Chaos Issue of i-D, he shared photos of the same city the day prior to the first lockdown, the sense of unnerving confusion that took over the capital as this strange new virus lingered. “There was suddenly a change in the air, an ominous atmosphere of anxiety and insecurity could be felt on the streets of London,” Jermaine said. “Where once there was clarity, there was now the unknown.”

a man in a high vis jacket handing out magazines on a busy street
a man in a high vis jacket handing out magazines on a busy street

Now, in his new book released earlier this week entitled Rhythms from the Metroplex, Jermaine goes back to those days of clarity prior to the pandemic via a series of stills taken on the bustling city streets of London and New York City between 2017 and early 2020. In images from New York, pedestrians, school kids and shoppers weave between the incoming traffic and the city’s iconic yellow taxis. In London, shoulder-to-shoulder crowds form at road crossings and underground entrances, commuters periodically switching between looking at their phones and the world around them. While on one page the streets may seem to have calmed, on the next a person is standing mere inches away from the lens.

Jermaine was decisive in the locations he chose: “In street photography, New York and London have historically always had a strong presence… They’re melting pots of culture within the space, the people walking around and the noise.” In both cities there is a bustling sense of movement and chaos as individuals, each with their own direction and destination, navigate this space, their paths often clashing. But Jermaine did notice some differences. “London is, in some ways, a bit more sedated compared to New York City. NYC is a bit quicker and more hectic. But both have their moments of peace and space. It’s a rhythm that can have both of these elements.”

a man stands in the road in new york while people walk past
a man stands in the road in new york while people walk past

There is a rhythm to the movement within the book, too, and at points flicking through the pages feels like watching stop-motion. “The imagery is informed as much by cinema and film stills as it is by the photographic still,” Jermaine says, also noting that he was reading Henri Lefebvre’s Rhythm Analysis and listening to Detroit Techno while making the images: “I love the unconventional beats and futuristic sounds [of Detroit Techno]. It helped me with this process.”

Such movement is noticeable over four pages in the book as we see a kid walking along a busy road before preparing to sneeze, bowing his head and scrunching up his face as he covers his nose with his glove, before casually resuming his walk as he disappears out of frame. “I wanted it to feel like it was constructed as cinematic theatre, but with the tension of real life.”

a man in a beanie hat looks into the camera as an older man looks away at his phone

Of course, a sneeze or a cough in public now garners a different reaction in a public. However, when Jermaine was taking these photographs, he didn’t realise they would be a document of a time so far from our current reality. “This book is [only] about pre-pandemic life because of the context we are in,” he says, noting that his original plan was to continue the series over 2020 before the pandemic happened. “However, it was always about the energy of the city, how we negotiate this city space -- which isn’t neutral -- and how it affects the inhabitants. These narratives of the everyday, but also the moments in-between.”

Jermaine recognises that those moments of the everyday now have “another sensitivity to the narrative” that didn’t exist before, and it was only when he revisited the images in December 2020 after finishing his previous book that he picked up on the patterns within the images and their pacing and energy. “I think in some ways it was a bit of ‘wow, will we get back to this? When will I experience this energy again?’ It made me realise how much I loved the city. [It has] an innocence. Maybe in the long-term that might return.”

a large crowd of people queuing for something
a large crowd of people queuing for something

The book is also about those seen and unseen within the city scape. “It’s about visibility,” Jermaine says. “How people can be rendered invisible within an everyday environment.” He points out the magazine vendor standing outside Bank underground station in London wearing a high-visibility jacket. Within each of the stills, the people are constantly changing -- a woman wearing a tartan scarf and olive peacoat in the middle of one shot has disappeared in the next -- but the vendor remains a constant, holding out the magazine in the same spot of each frame only to be ignored, at one point even barged past by a seemingly oblivious commuter. In another scene from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard in New York, a man blends into the pedestrians as he waits at a crossing. But when the lights change he unusually stands in the road as he speaks openly to those around, remaining within the scene as everyone else passes by, actively ignoring or avoiding his message.

Not everyone is rendered invisible within the ordinary. There are also those who are hyper-visible, with Jermaine describing the way he was racially profiled on the streets of London while creating the book. “I grew up in the 80s and 90s, so profiling for me isn’t new. It’s part of the residue that happens when you’re Black. In some ways being on the street is not neutral and it reminded me, looking back, how vulnerable you can be in that situation.”

a man stands on the pavement by a crossing talking to strangers walking past

The moment is captured within the book and we see a police officer staring into the camera lens from a slight distance in one photo before approaching in a later one. “There were other photographers taking images but I was the one singled out,” he says. “These judgements are made in everyday life, based on class and gender as well as race. In some ways these images act like a low-level metaphor for this without being didactic.”

Not being didactic is a key part of Jermaine’s wider work, and though the book documents moments intrinsic to the issues of today’s world, he doesn’t have any expectations on what readers of his book should come away with. “I hope they enjoy the ride but also find those threads and meanings in relation to these images.”

With shops and clubs now open in both London and New York, and festivals, concerts and events slowly starting up again, crowds are becoming a part of everyday city life once more, whether we all may be comfortable with them or not. However, their energy will inevitably be different: as Jermaine pointed out, Covid is now imprinted within our collective memory. So what does he think the energy and rhythms of a photobook on post-pandemic life in a metroplex will look like? “I don’t know. The beauty of life is that your predictions of it are never really how it goes. That’s also why I love photography. Like life, it’s never really static.”

‘Rhythms from the Metroplex’ is available to buy now from Jermaine Francis Studio.


All images courtesy Jermaine Francis

New York