Joyce Yu-Jean Lee is an American-born Chinese-Taiwanese visual artist and educator based in New York City. Unable to access her studio due to shelter-in-place policies during the pandemic, she turned to her camera: “Photographing helped me see the small light in this epic darkness, to find a conscientious perspective,” she says. “This project inspired me to continue making during a discouraging time when many creatives lacked the motivation for their regular studio practice.”
Day 56: Indelible Spring, Upper West Side
Friday, March 12, was my last day of teaching at Marist College before spring break. Little did I know how long the break would last. Oblivious to the virus changing the world outside, my houseplants stretched their branches towards the light. Even as the daily counts rose, the faint hope that warmer weather might dispel the pandemic still floated in the air.
Day 79: Tot Break Out, Pier I
Neighborly interaction took on new life under quarantine. I grew accustomed to seeing the same masked faces on my brief walks to the nearby Hudson River pier: the girl with the miniature poodle, always running ahead of her parents, flaunting her pastel fashions; my skateboarding English bulldog neighbor, who always draws a crowd.
Day 66: Lucky’s Famous, Hell’s Kitchen
Most restaurants remained closed, but a handful, like Lucky’s Famous Burgers, were open for socially distanced business. This waiter hesitated to pose for an essential worker portrait, but at the urging of two elderly women passing by, he agreed. According to a report by the Partnership for New York City, when the pandemic eventually subsides, roughly a third of the city’s small businesses may never reopen.
Day 38: Brooklyn Crab, Red Hook
As the infection rate fell, I emerged from hiding and became a bike tourist in my own city. One day as I rode to Coney Island, a fellow cyclist caught a flat and asked for help. The pit stop triggered déjà vu: I eventually remembered seeing this kitschy crab shack on an episode of Modern Love.
Day 83: Metro-North to Cold Spring
The Metro-North train was eerily empty as summer started without its usual fanfare, and I embarked on my first trip upstate in months to bicycle in Cold Spring. The MTA reported a decline of over 90 percent in ridership as of April, and 123 transit workers had died from the novel coronavirus by mid-May.
Day 83: Ghostbusters, Grand Central Station
On my return trip, a public sanitation crew performed a routine disinfection of the automated ticket kiosks in a nearly empty Grand Central Station. Their PPE and sanitation gear reminded me of the suits and traps of the original Ghostbusters, fighting their own invisible enemy.
Day 9: We Forgive You, NYC, The Standard Hotel
During a bike ride home one evening, I came across the empty Standard Hotel with its illuminated windows in the shape of a heart. In a love note spelled out in lights, hotel staff lament their absent guests. Roger Cohen left a similar love note in the Times: “I knew all along that your great secret was that an extreme degree of ambition coexists in your streets with the empathy every New Yorker feels for a fellow New Yorker…. We took you too much for granted. Yes, forgive us for not giving daily praise for the miracle of New York.”
Day 84: Black Voice, Port Authority
On Monday, June 1, I stepped outside to find myself surrounded by bike cops preparing for protests in response to the killing of George Floyd. I watched a lone protester push her walker down the bike lane toward armed NYPD, shouting that Black lives matter.
Day 97: Black Lives Matter Rally, Greenpoint, Brooklyn
Protestors marched peacefully on Driggs Avenue in June. That month, citizens of Hong Kong held the only mass memorial of the Tiananmen Square Massacre on Chinese soil—possibly for the last time. In a shocking parallel, news reports flood screens in both western and eastern homes with images of police violence against protestors.
Day 91: Ice Cream Truck Beat Drop, Columbus Circle
The seasons of New York march on. The weather heats up, daylight hours lengthen, and ice cream trucks jingle in every borough. This truck on Central Park South spins neon lights like glowsticks twirled by club kids, accompanied by techno beats instead of bells. A family wrapping up their day in the park pull down their face masks to enjoy their treats.
Day 91: Take-Out, Central Park South
A woman with matted hair cascading to her waist eats from a take-out box at the Merchants’ Gate to Central Park. The setting sun casts a warm glow on her. Behind her are sculptures depicting the allegorical figures of Courage, Fortitude, Justice, and Peace—the values sometimes held dear by New York City. This beautiful dystopic image encapsulates both my admiration and heartbreak for my home. There is so much wrong in the world right now. There is so much work to be done. As an artist, my response is to pay attention—through observation, documentation and art making. As Simone Weil wrote, “Attention, taken to its highest degree, is the same thing as prayer. It presupposes faith and love. Absolutely unmixed attention is prayer.”
Joyce Yu-Jean Lee makes photography, video, and interactive installations combining social practice with institutional critique. Her work examines how media, technology, and culture influence truth and understanding of the “other.”
The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.