Do you remember what life felt like last spring? For many of us, those months are both crystalized and blurred together—painfully clear and strangely nebulous. For NYC’s own Ruben Natal-San Miguel, they’re documented in images like today’s new release. Photographed in the early days of the pandemic, the artist’s third edition, "Be Well'' (Apollo Theater) 2020 Harlem, NYC, pictures the iconic Apollo Theater. Debuting it just over a year after it was shot, as things are slowly opening up in our New York neighborhoods, the timing feels serendipitous. And that message on the marquee has taken on an even deeper meaning.
When Natal-San Miguel captured this quiet, arresting scene over a year ago, NYC was only a matter of days into a citywide shutdown. New York was the epicenter of the nation’s COVID-19 outbreak. The city was eerily silent aside from the sound of sirens—streets empty, businesses closed, everyone navigating the unknown. Outfitted in a mask and gloves and carrying a camera, Natal-San Miguel did what he does best: he ventured out on foot to photograph the city he loves so much and (from a safe distance) the inhabitants that give this metropolis its unmistakable, inimitable texture. It became a therapeutic exercise, a way for him to find solace and a sense of purpose in uncharted territory.
It was on one of these walks around Harlem that the artist spotted the Apollo Theater’s illuminated marquee, it’s bold, black, all-caps lettering reaching out into the unusually dark street to offer a lifeline. “Be Well,” it urged, a gracious and imperative love poem to passersby. Because Natal-San Miguel framed his shot slightly askew, the name of the theater is just discernible at right. With the context clear, there’s extra emphasis on the irregularity of the abandoned scene. The marquee hovers midway between the street and the unlit building above, caught in a liminal zone like New Yorkers on PAUSE. Bright, colorful lights send healing rays into the inky stillness. At a time when human connection felt fraught if not impossible, Natal-San Miguel found a kind of intimacy in his photo of the Apollo, a complex, almost human air of dignity and vulnerability. "Be Well'' (Apollo Theater) 2020 Harlem, NYC is a moment of hope, solidarity, togetherness, tragedy, and tenacity—all in one.
Of course, the Apollo Theater isn’t your average subject, something Natal-San Miguel surely knew. It’s an institution, steeped in history. It packs a particularly poignant punch. Built around 1914 as a burlesque theater under another name, the Apollo changed ownership in 1934 when it opened to Black patrons. As many folks know, it would go on to become a cultural epicenter particularly renowned for springboarding brilliant Black performers, launching the careers of legends like Ella Fitzgerald, Jimi Hendrix, Billie Holiday, Diana Ross & The Supremes, Sammy Davis Jr., The Jackson 5, Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and a seemingly inexhaustible list of other game-changing talents. By 1983, it was officially declared a New York City Landmark, and joined the ranks at the National Register of Historic Places. "Be Well'' (Apollo Theater) 2020 Harlem, NYC taps into the Apollo’s role as a symbol of New York’s personality, its idiosyncrasy, its irrepressible shine—even in the darkest times.
This photograph is now in the permanent collection of the Museum of The City of NY, and is part of the Covid-19 series currently on display in New York Responds. The exhibition marks the one-year anniversary of the pandemic’s arrival in New York City, making space to reflect on losses and lessons learned, and explore our collective path forward. Looking at "Be Well'' (Apollo Theater) 2020 Harlem, NYC, we want to engage in a similar exercise, to appreciate the ways in which the marquee’s message endures, to acknowledge how far we’ve come. But we also want to get totally, magnificently absorbed in the Big Apple’s unstoppable beauty, and astonished by the artists who immortalize it.
With art for everyone,