Sarah van Rij and David van der Leeuw’s love letter to New York City

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The couple became enamoured with the city during the Covid-19 lockdown, and travelled there when restrictions lifted to capture its streets with renewed perspective

We have been a couple for over nine years and our love is not only with each other, but also in a shared vision of the world around us,” say Amsterdam-based photography duo Sarah van Rij and David van der Leeuw. They have just released their new project, A City Fantastic, and are reflecting on the circumstances that inspired it. 

“Like most of us in the past couple of years we experienced multiple Covid-19 lockdowns, and during that time we attempted to keep our creative minds active by reading and watching films and documentaries – in our case almost exclusively about New York City.” But what was it about New York that drew them? It might be a cliche, they say, but there is no other place like it. The city serves as a backdrop to a host of memorable 20th century stories. And, it is known as one of the birthplaces of street photography. For the pair, it is a strong reference burned into their visual memories. 

© Sarah van Rij.
© David van der Leeuw.
© Sarah van Rij.
© Sarah van Rij.

Over those long months stuck at home over the past two years, the pair immersed themselves in a mythical vision of NYC as portrayed by visionaries such as EB White, Gordon Parks and Alfred Hitchcock. “We had visited and fallen in love with the City before. But during this period of constant daydreaming, it became something of an obsession, like the ultimate form of escapism for the both of us,” they agree. They began making plans to visit New York as soon as they could. 

When they finally got there, however, their expectations and reality collided. “We felt exhilarated to have arrived, but we quickly realised it wasn’t the New York we’d imagined and over-romanticised. Instead, we found a city in recovery, once again picking up the pieces of a crisis.” For the next five weeks, the duo sought to capture the essence of a city they had dreamed up in their minds, and the reality that presented itself before them. Exploring the streets together, they photographed similar scenes, capturing the locations from multiple perspectives.

© David van der Leeuw & © Sarah van Rij.
© David van der Leeuw.
© Sarah van Rij.

The resulting images are layered and dreamlike, with a richly cinematic feel. The reflections of tall buildings and blurred images of passersby create movement. We feel as if we are pacing along the street and stealing glances side by side with the photographers. Noticeable icons of New York such as the Empire State Building are present in the pictures too, but they often appear abstracted. Precedence is given to smaller moments, and the everyday denizens who inhabit these streets. 

“Where most people would see only an abandoned office building, or a lonesome mannequin standing in an empty store window, we chose to look for beauty instead,” they explain. “We sought to capture the unstaged and almost indefinable elements of the city, be they vague silhouettes of people, or the vast amount of colours, abstract shapes and poetic rhythms the city itself consists of. The result is a shared perception of a place that transcends time – and a deeply personal love letter to an endlessly magical city.” 

Van Rij and van der Leeuw often roam the streets together with their cameras, sometimes seeking their own images, and sometimes working together on commissioned projects. A City Fantastic, however, is their first personal work together. Now, they’re looking forward to future projects. “Since we are both mostly inspired by cinema, we’re planning to shoot our first short fictional movie in the near future,” they reveal.

Joanna Cresswell

Joanna L. Cresswell is a writer and editor based in Brighton. She has written on photography and culture for over 40 international magazines and journals, and held positions as editor for organisations including The Photographers' Gallery, Unseen Amsterdam and Self Publish, Be Happy. She recently completed an MA in comparative literature and criticism at Goldsmiths College, University of London