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Arts & Culture

New photography exhibit captures COVID-era New Haven

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Roderick Topping
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New Haven Museum
Roderick Topping's "Maison Mathis"

On any given day, downtown New Haven is teeming with people from all walks of life.

But a new photography exhibit at the New Haven Museum captures a different side of the Elm City: when COVID forced residents to hunker down indoors and New Haven became like a ghost town.

The exhibit features the photography of downtown New Haven resident Roderick Topping. Over the years, New Haven has been a favorite subject of his. He said he’s fascinated with its architecture, landmarks and topography. So when the pandemic hit in March 2020, he saw an opportunity.

“It wasn’t originally because ‘it’s COVID, let’s document this time,’ although that was probably in the back of my mind,” Topping said. “It was more that I could see New Haven the way it is — without people, traffic and hubbub.”

Without the hustle and bustle, familiar streets, businesses and facades in downtown New Haven become the center of attention in Topping’s photographs — places like Trinity Church on the Green, Soul de Cuba restaurant and Cafe Nine.

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Roderick Topping

Most of Topping’s photographs are in black and white, giving them a stark, sometimes ethereal quality. Like Topping’s photograph “Maison Mathis.” He captures a dark silhouette walking past the Elm Street restaurant in the fog. It’s at night, and Elm Street is deserted. Topping said the picture is just one of the many happy accidents he had while working on this project.

“That was a bizarre night, when it was clear and cold, and then suddenly this fog came out of nowhere,” he said. “I took a number of photographs in the fog with people in them and that was my favorite.”

Topping also captures other, more political moments that coincided with COVID, like the controversial removal of the Christopher Columbus statue from Wooster Square in June of 2020.

“When Columbus was up on the flatbed trailer, I was like, ‘Oh that would make a good shot,’" he said. “If you didn’t know what was going on, you would still look at the photograph, because Columbus was on a flatbed trailer, you know? And then you have this burly police officer with a mask on, and all those bystanders.”

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Roderick Topping
The removal of the Christopher Columbus statue from New Haven's Wooster Square

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle, curator of the exhibit, said that by capturing so much detail in such an important time in history, Topping really hit his stride with this project.

“It’s those subtle things that happen so quick, that we all forget,” said Bischoff-Wurstle, the director of photo archives at the New Haven Museum. “He captured those details. These moments are fleeting. And we think we remember them, but we don’t. And especially with a traumatic situation, a global trauma, already people are kind of like, ‘I don’t want to think about that anymore’ — rightfully so. But we’ll forget. And these little details keep the story going.”

Roderick Topping
Abigail Winslow
Photographer Roderick Topping

“Strange Times: Downtown New Haven in the COVID Era” runs through next year at the New Haven Museum.

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