Site Specific

With Joel Meyerowitz in the Forbidden City

On September 11, Joel Meyerowitz was doing what he's most famous for: photographing the bay, sky, and brilliant morning light of Cape Cod. Although he's published 13 books, whose subjects range from street work to cityscapes to redheads, his sublime color photos of summer by the sea have become Meyerowitz's signature images. A friend had asked for yet another one of them to use in the promotion of a hotel in Chatham, so he was up early and perched at the edge of the water with his old-fashioned wooden view camera. "It was one of those still, perfect, late-summer days," he recalls, "and the world was so peaceful and quiet. I remember thinking how good it was to be alive." Then his cell phone rang, and Maggie Barrett, the English writer he'd married in Tuscany this summer, urged him to get to a television set. When he did, he saw the second plane slice into the World Trade Center, and his peaceful world, and ours, exploded with it.

Meyerowitz spent the next four days in anxious exile from the city where he was born. By the time he was able to get back to his apartment on Bethune Street, both he and Barrett were turned away from already overwhelmed volunteer centers. He faced more frustration the following day down at the fenced-in perimeter at Chambers and Greenwich streets, where, he says, "I had one of those experiences that change your life." Though he couldn't really see much of anything of the demolished buildings from where he stood, like any photographer, he wanted to see it through his lens. But as soon as he raised his Leica, a female police officer tapped him hard on the back and shouted, "No photographs here!" When his attempts to be reasonable failed—the "crime scene" was, after all, five blocks away—Meyerowitz showed the officer the press pass he'd secured just in case, only to be directed to a penned-in area a block further away uptown and warned that any more "lip" would result in the loss of his pass.

"I was shocked," Meyerowitz says. "It had a kind of fascistic quality. I stood there, looking at what little I could see of the pile, and thinking, If there's no photography allowed, there won't be any history." History and photography have been married since the medium's earliest days, and Meyerowitz began mentally ticking off prime examples of their link as he walked back uptown: Charles Marville, Mathew Brady, Lewis Hine, Jacob Riis, and the remarkable crew of artists—including Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahn—brought together by the Farm Security Administration (FSA) to record the effects of the Depression in America. By the time he got home, he'd resolved to return to the World Trade Center site and make not just a photograph but an archive. "I realized that that cop had hit me on my shoulder the way a Zen master does when you're slumping during meditation. She woke me up. I don't know who she is, but I really thank her."

Since that awakening, Meyerowitz has been a driven man. Rangy and fit at 63, with a shaved head and penetrating eyes, the photographer is already quite imposing, but his intensity has found a new and all-consuming focus. "Like every artist," he says, "you want to do something that's socially useful and meaningful, and I have periodically in my life. But a lot of times I'm making pictures that are aesthetic; they're about air, light, the view camera, and description—things that are of value to me as an artist. So if I love describing places, this is just another place, but this is a place whose description was going to be lost. And it started to burn in me in a way that I haven't felt in many years, and I just got caught by it and I refused to let it go."

After convincing Robert Macdonald, the director of the Museum of the City of New York, to sponsor his archive of the aftermath, Meyerowitz managed to wangle greater and greater access to ground zero. Although there's still an official ban on photography within the perimeter of the site itself, he's made pictures there nearly every day for the past month and a half, most recently with a pass that designates him the mayor's photographer, and he intends to remain there until the ground is cleared. Ultimately, following the FSA model, he hopes to involve other photographers in the project (including Susan Meiselas, John Szarkowski, Tony Roma, and Gus Powell, who has tagged along as his "assistant" a few times), but for now he's photographing on his own. The results, destined for the collection of the Museum of the City of New York, are only just beginning to get processed and printed. One shot, of a huge torn flag on the facade of the World Financial Center, appeared in the October 15 New Yorker (which has contracted for another 18 photos over the course of the next year); another appears here. But Meyerowitz's stories from what he calls "the forbidden city," related with a Whitmanesque flair for itemization, are already in circulation, and they offer a fascinating view of life in the zone. Just listen.

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