On his first visit to New York from England in August 1980, Bob Watkins shot this picture of a couple. The city was a place of utmost tolerance in the years before Mayor Giuliani’s zero-tolerance criminal campaign and the rise of gentrification, when anything might happen at any time.

This was both a challenge and a release for Watkins, who had specialized in capturing the ironies of Englishness and its traditions.

“Both the city and myself were out of money, and there was a sense of danger on every corner,” he says in a monograph of his photographs from that summer. When I first stepped out of the subway onto Fifth Avenue, I was overwhelmed by the heat, smell, and scale of the canyon. It seemed like I was inside Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run record.

As I strolled the same sidewalks as my photography idols and sipped Dr Pepper to replace the perspiration, the streets were filled with garbage and broken people.” Watkins recalls times when the energy of the streets converged – “Democratic Convention rallies and Iranian hostage demonstrations added extra visual opportunities,” for example – but it was the unpredictability of those streets that he remembers the most.

Watkins’ camera appeared eager to seek out little moments of intimacy and calm in the midst of the heat and commotion, maybe as a reprieve. The pair in this photograph seems to be completely oblivious to their hectic surroundings, the taxi taxis’ haste, and the seeming lassitude of the people in the background.

The haircuts put them in that era and location, but the love gestures seem ageless, as if they were choreographed for a film. Are they saying their goodbyes or meeting for the first time? The more you look, the more difficult it becomes to tell.

Thanks to Tim Adams at The Guardian whose reporting provided the original basis for this story.