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Having grown up in New York I know that there is such a thing as “stoop life” — a repurposing of the stairway leading to the entrance of a residence to make it a social space. People sit on stoops to check in with neighbors, to chat with friends, to have snacks or make phone calls, all the sundry things one might do in the privacy of the home, but with fresh air all around and greater social availability. In this current moment when New Yorkers are staggered by the proscriptions and restrictions put in place to prevent the further spread of the coronavirus, sociality is strange and fraught and highly valued. I crave companionship now more than I thought I ever would, and looking at Francesca Magnani’s photographs of people occupying building stoops, I feel that she does too.
Magnani, who is originally from Padua, Italy has been photographing New York street life for more than 20 years, but what prompted the series shown here is the onset of the pandemic. As Magnani says in our email exchange: “Cuomo had just announced that the pause would start in two days, and because I was photographing the anxiety building up in New Yorkers and myself for weeks, I had just decided to limit my time on the subway, and explore the neighborhood more.” She isn’t the only photographer documenting lifestyle changes brought about by the viral epidemic and the ways that we purposefully remain connected, but her focus on people occupying entranceway steps of buildings in Brooklyn is unique.
Previously, she had been intrigued by stoops in her neighborhood of Boerum Hill when she noticed that people would “casually but systematically” leave behind personal items. They left books, utensils, and clothing as if suggesting the space might also act as a market for barter or exchange. But under the blight of COVID-19, the stoops now more poignantly represent a combination of the public and the private. In Magnani’s words, “As the streets emptied, it’s like a living room came out — to my eyes a mix of inside and outside.”
That’s what stands out to me in these images: that the stoop is both a literal and figurative threshold space. It is where you can be intimate and yet keep relatively safe social distance. It is both open and yet segregated from the street. The photographer is well aware that she is encroaching on a semi-private space, so she is careful to ask each sitter whether they mind her making an image of them. When she looks at them again in her workspace, she sees a “desire for a home, for connection, for domesticity, for friendship, for family and a toast; for a room of one’s own, one with blooming flowers, and no walls.” Yes. There are likely too many walls, and it’s too easy for us to lose each other behind them.