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Shutter Speed
A look at the rapid photographic recordings of Sept. 11.


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Deroy Murdock

In the three months since the September 11 attack on America, instant horror has eased into painful memory and, now, documented history. Occurring in the key media centers of New York City and Washington D.C., these assaults were photographed, videotaped, and chronicled by journalists and novice shutterbugs alike. Perhaps in record time, the carnage the al Qaeda terrorists wrought and the patriotism it unleashed are both presented in several excellent picture books and exhibitions. The World Trade Center also is remembered in all its now-vanished glory at these shows and in two other volumes. Here is a glimpse of these worthy offerings.

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One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001 from the editors of Life magazine (Little, Brown and Company, $29.95, 192 pp. Ten percent of the book’s cover price will be contributed to the September 11th Fund.) Look carefully at this book’s dust jacket. What appears at a distance to be the American flag actually is thousands of miniature photographs of those murdered on September 11. The editors of this volume, the most comprehensive of the three books on the attack reviewed here, examine both the societal and individual sides of this story. It features a fact-filled timeline of terror that begins on 9-11 at 5:45 a.m. as Mohammed Atta and Abdulaziz Alomari pass through a security checkpoint at Portland, Maine’s airport en route to Boston, where they boarded American Airlines Flight 11. It ends at 10:21 p.m. as President Bush concludes a meeting with security advisers and retires for the evening.

Atop the many first-rate news photographs, this book includes excellent graphics of the deadly paths the hijacked jets followed to their destinations. Another schematic of the Manhattan skyline clearly indicates which buildings were demolished, wounded, or scarred. Unlike the next two volumes, this book discusses the Pentagon — from its 1941-1943 construction in a Washington-area swamp once called Hell’s Bottom to the damage it sustained on September 11. This book also features an informative essay on the Twin Towers’ construction and an introduction by New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani that deftly touches all the bases. As he writes: “Inspired by countless examples of courage and generosity, we have met the worst of humanity with the best of humanity. The darkest day in our long history has led to our finest hour.”

September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Heroism and Hope by the editors of New York magazine. (Harry N. Abrams, Inc., $19.95, 144 pp. The book’s proceeds will be given to the September 11th Fund.) Combining superb photography with spare but informative captions, this book describes the first awful week that New Yorkers endured during and after the attack. In this coherent narrative, Sean Hemmerle saw white dress shirts properly arranged at the Brooks Brothers store on Church Street. Through its windows, steel beams and concrete buttresses buckle every which way. Amazingly intact, albeit silenced, the broadcast tower that topped WTC One juts from Ground Zero’s rubble pile into Steve Lopez’s lens. Jonathan Torgovnik captured a fireman who seemingly protects himself from harm by attaching to his helmet a tiny tiger figurine and a small picture of Jesus bearing the cross.

This book’s most heartbreaking pair of images appears on its dust jacket. The front shows the Empire State Building by day with its taller neighbors ablaze. The back has the Empire State bathed at night in red, white, and blue lights. Downtown, white klieg lights illuminate nothing more than a giant puff of smoke.

New York September 11 by Magnum photographers. (powerHouse Books, $29.95, 144 pp. A portion of proceeds will go to the New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund.) Eleven of Magnum’s photographers happened to be in New York for their agency’s monthly meeting on September 10. They awoke the next morning and began covering the biggest story of their lives. This book combines their excellent news photos with gripping accounts of the challenges they faced to do their duty.

Steve McCurry cut through a wire fence to click his shutter at Ground Zero. Ann-Marie Conlon snapped a piece of an airplane engine sitting on a sidewalk. Gillen Perres, beside his shot of people emerging from a cloud of ash, simply writes: “I don’t trust words. I trust pictures.”

The World Trade Center Remembered photographs by Sonja Bullaty and Angelo Lomeo, text by Paul Goldberger (Abbeville Press, $19.95, 108 pp. A portion of proceeds will benefit the Twin Towers Fund). This is the weaker of the two books discussed here that recall the WTC’s shattered majesty. Bullaty’s and Lomeo’s photographs are organized with views from the east, south, north, and west. There are numerous shots of the ground-level Plaza, its shiny surface reflecting the lighted offices above. While some images are memorable, a few artsier pictures are deliberately and annoyingly blurry. Also, there are no fewer than six pictures of Christmas trees at the WTC.

Still, one grieves for Abbeville Press, which had to abandon its damaged offices at 22 Cortlandt Street, directly across from the Towers. They, more than most, would agree with the words on their volume’s sleeve: “From any direction, the towers were loadstars, Manhattan’s mountains.”

A Tribute by Jay Maisel (Callaway/Barnes & Noble Books, $19.95. A portion of proceeds will go to The New York Police and Fire Widow’s and Children’s Benefit Fund.) Like a proud relative who traces the lives of a pair of beloved, identical brothers since birth, Jay Maisel shot the Twin Towers from construction to collapse. With almost obsessive dedication, he zoomed in on them “from New Jersey, Brooklyn, Queens, from the Plaza looking up, from helicopters looking down, and from other buildings,” as he writes in his emotional foreword.

His images are just as stirring. A crescent moon peeks between the Towers at night. Lighting bolts dance above them, seemingly delighted not to have to stretch too far down for a piece of exposed steel. Like a pair of surfers bobbing above the waves, the top floors of the Towers peek through a cloud bank.

“They were so very quintessentially our symbols,” Maisel writes, “they were double — as in NY, NY.”

New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers (New York Historical Society — 2 West 77th Street at Central Park West, New York City. 212-873-3400.) On Tuesdays through Sundays from 10:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m. through February 25, 2002, the NYHS presents an exhibit mounted in conjunction with Magnum and its aforementioned photo book. Many of the images in the volume appear in large, crisp prints. The front sides of three large monoliths display images and explanatory words by the photographers who took them. Behind each kiosk, the organizers have listed alphabetically each of the more than 3,000 individuals murdered at the WTC. The result resembles the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There are pictures of the attack and its resulting devastation, New Yorkers in mourning and a separate room filled with warm photos of the Twin Towers in all their soaring grandeur.

Most striking, however, is a silent film, of sorts. Cameraman Evan Fairbanks filled about 20 minutes of videotape with his observations that morning in Lower Manhattan. Arriving on a pedestrian bridge across Trinity Place shortly after Tower One was hit, he shows us the building in flames, paper raining down as if in a ticker tape parade and scores of New Yorkers looking up in confusion and disbelief. Oddly enough, there is no panic.

As Fairbanks’s aims his lens toward the nearly cobalt-blue skies, United Airlines Flight 175 suddenly appears without warning and slams into Tower Two. This image has appeared on TV, but only in slow motion. Seeing the jet hit the skyscraper as quickly as a dart zipping an inch from their noses caused three sets of museum patrons to gasp loudly at the familiar site while I visited this exhibit. The subsequent scramble on the streets below recalls the pedestrian pandemonium in Independence Day or King Kong.

The September 11 Photo Project (26 Wooster Street — between Grand and Canal streets in SoHo, New York City — 212-358-3423.) On Tuesdays through Sundays from 11:00 a.m. — 6:00 p.m. through January 6, 2002, this grassroots effort will display over 1,000 photographs and accompanying texts donated by individuals moved by the barbarity and the uplifting response it inspired. The project moves to Washington, D.C. early in 2002 and afterward is expected to travel around America. A photo book also is in the works with proceeds going to the NYC Firefighter Burn Center Foundation and to families of attack victims.

The project continuously accepts submissions. In fact, when I visited last Sunday, curator Walter Markham accepted a half dozen pictures that I have taken. They joined the exhibit just two hours later. That is a large part of this show’s democratic appeal. Unlike the meticulously presented and carefully-selected professional photographs at the NYHS uptown, the September 11 Photo Project consists largely of pictures by amateurs and regular folks. They are posted in no particular order on the bare, white walls of a donated, downtown gallery space.

That said, the pictures here are not just shaky shots taken by tourists with disposable cameras. Much of the work is highly moving and sometimes jaw-dropping.

In one snapshot, part of the landing gear of American Airlines Flight 11 rests incongruously beside a pay phone. Stephen M. Levine caught the black facade of the Banker’s Trust Building, which faces north toward the former WTC Tower Two. It looks as if Godzilla dragged his claw across the front of the glass and steel skyscraper. Look closely for the piece of Tower Two jutting sharply from the building, like a dagger in the chest.

Another photo shows a street filled with paperwork and about a dozen abandoned, randomly arrayed shoes on the sidewalk and in an adjacent gutter. Claudio Giordano found a graffito on a pay phone that happens to stand immediately in front of my apartment building. It reads: “On 9/11/01 God was asleep.” A black and white image finds a Styrofoam cup sitting among 15 votive candles on the ground beside a chain-link fence. Presumably bearing its own candle, the cup bears the handwritten words: “I’ll miss you Mom.”

One very colorful picture shows black smoke billowing behind the still-standing World Financial Center’s buildings as they shimmer in the orange sunlight. “That’s pretty,” one man told his companion. “I don’t mean pretty,” he struggled, “but, you know…” He put his finger on something about many of these images. Detached from the pain and loss and evil they represent, many of them are very visually appealing. There is no English word for “ugly beauty.” If there were, it would be easier to explain how pictures and footage of fireballs, collapsing steel beams and smoldering wreckage are simultaneously repulsive and irresistible.

In contrast, some people’s pictures harken back to the World Trade Center’s better days. In a photo she calls “The Way We Were,” Tamra Walker discovered a man in a blue vest riding a yellow jet ski as the towers rise above him and the Hudson River. The picture was taken on September 9. As her caption reads: “The Twin Towers just two days before their demise.”

Joshua Lefkowitz, who lives in the East Village at University Place and East 13th Street, describes “The Picture Not Taken.” He explains that he always marveled at the Twin Towers as they resembled “two guards overlooking our city.” Expecting them to be there forever, he never photographed them from his neighborhood.

On September 1, however, he shot his first — and last — pictures of the WTC while returning to Manhattan across the Brooklyn Bridge. “I was struck by the shadow slicing a perfect angle across the North Tower,” says his caption to a picture showing Tower Two casting onto Tower One a 45-degree angle worthy of a geometry textbook. He adds: “I don’t regret not taking any pictures of the Towers as they stood helplessly burning. I prefer to remember them as they were on September 1.”



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