At the epicentre of the Covid-19 pandemic in New York

Photographer Philip Montgomery was at the forefront of documenting the coronavirus crisis in New York. He reflects on the experience here, in a conversation with Gem Fletcher

A fire department paramedic works to resuscitate a patient who went into cardiac arrest. He clutches the gurney, dripping in sweat as he delivers chest compressions with absolute determination and inten­sity. His mask is worn so tightly that the straps contort his face. Eyes focused. Vitals closely observed. A scene so familiar in movies, but this is Queens Hospital Center in New York City during the Covid-19 crisis. For many of us, this photograph taken by Philip Montgomery was one of the first times we saw what was happening inside a hospital during the pandemic.

Montgomery spent two months working for the New York Times Magazine visually mapping a city deeply ­affected by coronavirus, capturing everything from restaurant owners forced into uncertainty to makeshift testing centres. Yet the critical story lay behind the doors of the public hospital system. Montgomery’s scenes are urgent, overwhelming, and bear witness to the enormity of the situation. What unites these photographs is his unique ability to find moments of stillness in chaos. He imprints every frame with rigour and elegance. In addition, his lighting brings a celestial quality, activating the audience and drawing attention to pervasive details that might otherwise go unseen. Together these elements make it impossible for the viewer to look away. Montgomery makes you feel like you are standing in the hospital right beside him.

 It’s been several months since these images were made and Montgomery is only beginning to unravel the lasting impact of what he’s seen. Here, he shares how he approached and managed the inherent risk and pressure while documenting one of the most important ­stories of our lifetime.

GF: As the pandemic took hold, you were asked to be on an open-ended assignment for the New York Times Magazine, working on its Covid-19 coverage in New York City, which was quickly becoming an epicentre of the outbreak. As part of that project, you covered seven hospitals in six days during the virus peak. How did you prepare psychologically for the assignment? And how did it feel going into that first hospital on the first day?
PM: When these stories present themselves, you are so focused on the enormity of it that your psychological headspace is thrown out the window. For me, it’s important to feel that wave of energy and emotion, and then channel it back into the work.

 The first day in the hospital was one of those rare instances where it was what I had imagined and much more. The first hospital I went to was in Queens, and the scene was largely overwhelming – dare I say it, apocalyptic. It was beds, on top of beds, on top of beds, on top of beds. Not because of the condition of the hospital, but because of the sheer volume of New Yorkers who had been hospitalised because of Covid. It really stopped me in my tracks, and I rarely get ­rattled doing this type of work.