This project, created during the height of the COVID-19 'lockdown' in the spring of this year, was trying to make the best of rubbish circumstances. My Instagram has a large following, so Hasselblad loaned me an X1D to use for different project. All the pictures are hand-held; only the Hasselblad could do this. Mrs Norfolk broke her ankle at the beginning of lockdown so I was able to shoot this project whilst she slept and still be back in time for breakfast, and I’m a demon on a bike so I could do the work without public transport. And most importantly I live in central London so I could shoot it in my allotted hour if I was quick.
The Bank of England was extensively rebuilt in the 1800s by my favourite architect Sir John Soane, today only his perimeter wall remains. Inebriated on the ruined dreams of the Classical world that were the education of all young men (and a few women) of wealth, he secretly carried out a fantasy sabotage of his own work. Meditating on the wonders of ancient Rome and Athens whilst working as a highly sought after architect, it was not enough for Soane to simply quote these ancient buildings in his commissions, although he did that too. Wondering how his buildings would look when they were as old as Rome is now, he privately instructed the artist Joseph Gandy to paint his own buildings as 2000-year-old, crumbled ruins inhabited by pigeons and weeds instead of bankers. Rather brilliantly the paintings also worked as axonometric cutaways that described his efficient use of the interior spaces. The only other architect I know who has so pre-envisioned his own work as ruins in Albert Speer.
In Gustave Doré’s 1873 engraving of ‘The New Zealander’ a lonely traveller, in centuries to come, sits by an overgrown River Thames. Across the water are the lifeless ruins of a future London, the crumbling dome of St Paul’s as decayed as the Roman Colosseum is today. New Zealand was imagined by Doré as so remote that it would escape the West’s imminent collapse and our Kiwi ponders the ruins of an earlier, collapsed civilisation just as an English noble might have done on his ‘grand tour’ in Rome. One of the things I love about the Grand Romantics was they had the courage to imagine a new society but also the humility to see beyond that, to how the world would be when even their paradise had come and gone. The meme of The New Zealander has had a long life. There is a direct line from him to the dystopian cities of JG Ballard and Cormac McCarthy, to a thousand zombie movies and he’s behind all those computer games that feature the lonely avenger scouring the streets of a post-apocalyptic city.
Constantin-François Volney, who travelled in Egypt and Syria in 1784, wrote in his book ‘Ruins, or a Survey of the Revolutions of Empires, "What are become of so many productions of the hand of man? Where are those ramparts of Nineveh, those walls of Babylon, those palaces of Persepolis? … Alas! I have beheld nothing but solitude and desertion! Who can assure me that the present desolation will not one day be the lot of our own country? Who knows but that hereafter some traveller like myself will sit down upon the banks of the Seine, the Thames, or the Zuyder Zee, solitary amid silent ruins, and weep a people [extinct], and their greatness changed into an empty name?" The Romantics thought our society would collapse from the emptiness of its values or the inequalities in our economies. Even the imaginations of Shelley or Byron couldn’t factor in a virus from a pangolin in the wet market of a provincial Chinese city.
In photographing Coronavirus London I was astonished that by removing from the streets the daily dross of life (cars, trucks, people) suddenly the architecture shone forth. Buildings look like the architect's plans of them; unblotted, sharp. I’m reminded of the painting of Giorgio de Chirico, their linear clarity and brilliantly lit dreamscapes. I never noticed how London is a grand Imperial chessboard with all the architectural pieces laid out awaiting the cavalcade. I thought of city as ‘Lost’ because a) this London was lost beneath the cacophony, b) I often got lost down side-streets I thought I knew intimately and c) the virus has left us all a little lost, at sixes and sevens.
I felt much like I did when I was in a bombed Afghanistan at the beginning of my career searching a shattered battlefield absent of soldiers; a stage without actors and me, the New Zealander, scratching for clues. Empty London is a Momento Mori or a Vanitas painting; it shows that this microscopic virus has made proud fools of us all. It has shown us to be ultimately powerless and our investments misguided and empty. All our dreams and schemes and the protections that insulate us from the world were found to be as tough as wet cardboard. Even the most comfortable of us is scrambling round the internet for toilet roll and PPE. Omnia vanitas.
The only people I meet on my dawn trips are the bronze statues of the grandees of the British Empire (‘Good morning, Your Grace’) who stand slightly disappointed, looking down on the mess we’ve made of their inheritance. They resemble Easter Island’s Moai left guarding the sacred groves of a religion no-one follows. Everyone’s gone to the Rapture.
London looked magnificent whilst looking as if it has been hit by a neutron bomb. I never imagined the Apocalypse would be so quiet that one would hear in Piccadilly the song of a blackbird.
Simon Norfolk is a documentary photographer from London. This work (the series can be seen in full here) about the empty architecture of London seen during the time of Coronavirus was commissioned by Cortona On The Move Festival in Cortona, Italy. The festival is open until 27th September 2020, with celebratory events in Cortona 24th-26th September.
See more work by Simon Norfolk