Empty streets. Abandoned city squares. Silent airports. The images made by German-born photographer Mat Hennek instantly evoke the Covid-19 pandemic that has shut down most of the world. Actually, though, Hennek began working on his Silent Cities series in 2013. Steidl’s publication of a book of the images earlier this month is pure coincidence—the project was years in the making.
“It’s like a prophetic work without the intention to be that,” Hennek says. “It’s really crazy.”
Hennek shot the series in dozens of cities around the world over the past seven years. Whenever he had a free day during his travels, he grabbed his Leica M9 and started walking. He avoided famous sites, seeking out fresh perspectives and serendipitous vignettes. “It always works better if you start walking randomly,” Hennek says. “You go left, you go right, you keep on walking, and all of a sudden you see something. I’m thankful for all the areas I discovered through this work that are absolutely not on the tourist route.”
The decision to exclude people from the images came from Hennek’s love of nature photography—through his lens, skyscrapers and highways appear as eternal as mountains or rivers. Including people would only have cluttered his compositions. But finding unpeopled streetscapes is harder said than done in a city like New York or Tokyo. To take some of the images, Hennek had to wait several hours for the perfect moment.
“I was trying to capture the emotion I felt looking at a scene,” he explains. “Somehow the colors, the materials, a bit of nature, a little plank here, a little green there, the mix of all of that seems to trigger something in me.”
These days, of course, images of silent cities are everywhere as photographers take advantage of the quarantine orders to capture once-in-a-lifetime shots of an empty Times Square, Champs-Elysees, or Piccadilly Circus. But Hennek isn’t getting in on the action. He’s more interested in finding quiet corners of big cities during normal times, and he plans to resume his series once the current crisis is over. “That’s really the opposite from what I do,” he says. “Those photographers are going to the well-known perspectives, which are now empty. Whereas I go to unfamiliar places.”
Like the rest of us, Hennek is waiting for the world to open up again. When it does, he’ll be back on the streets with his Leica, seeking the unknown.
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