Site Specific

With Joel Meyerowitz in the Forbidden City

"On my first night in there, I stayed until midnight," Meyerowitz says, "and by chance I bumped into a group of policemen from the arson and explosions squad, and for some reason, I charmed them. I was backing up a hill and they were sitting on the hill. There was a sea of chairs—chairs that had come out of the buildings, thousands of chairs, all over the place, so you would see lined up easy chairs from lobbies, executive desk chairs, bentwood chairs, Alvar Aalto chairs. And whenever they're taking a break, everybody's sitting in these chairs and watching the spectacle. So here were these four or five guys up on a little knoll in front of the World Financial Center, and I was trying to make this shot and I backed up the knoll and came into their space, and as a joke I sat in the captain's lap and we started laughing and we just hit it off. I explained to them what I was doing—what my goal was—and they got it. And they immediately said, 'You wanna come with us?' " Meyerowitz's voice has dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. " 'We can show you some great things. We'll take you up here, we can take you there, we can take you everywhere, because we go everywhere.' And they gave me their cell phone numbers and said, 'Anytime you want to go somewhere, call us. If you get into trouble, call us.' From that day on, it's the most worked button on my cell phone."

Although he fought for unlimited access, Meyerowitz understands why it was denied. "Mostly, they were afraid that people would get hurt. Because when you first walk in, it's like a field of swords—upright. If you weren't careful"—and here he makes a sudden raw, slashing sound—"a pants leg would be cut open or a leg would be sliced; boots would be ripped apart. Because it was everywhere: metal, just metal. My first pictures are astonishing to me, to see all of this stuff sticking up. So they were smart to keep people away. Well, they did designate the whole area as the crime scene, and the evidence is everywhere. The buildings have strewn everything out there. The black boxes from the airplanes are still missing; the flight recorders are missing. Everywhere on the site there are posters showing you what they look like, both in new and in damaged condition, so if you turn them over by chance, they'll be returned. And these guys are still on their hands and knees, sifting, every day. They have knee pads and they have sifters that are the size of a coffee table, and they're throwing earth through sifters and they're finding teeth and knuckles and ankles and bony stuff that didn't crack and belt buckles, things that wouldn't melt."

Meyerowitz has taken what he calls project director Roy Stryker's "shooting script" for the FSA—an exhaustive list of events, places, and things photographers were instructed to pay close attention to in each new town—as his model for the ground zero archive. Meyerowitz's list includes street signs, fire hydrants, lampposts, manhole covers, curbs, and railings—all of them damaged in the rain of debris from the WTC collapse. As he's gained greater access to the site, he's followed that damage into the surrounding streets and photographed directions spray-painted on marble facades ("morgue," "triage," "NYPD"), messages written on ash-covered windows, handwritten signs ("just like the ones Walker Evans photographed"). Meyerowitz is determined to record these things before they're cleaned up, torn down, or moved. But he's equally caught up in the task of photographing the people at the site.

"I've seen things down there that you can only see if you keep going," he says with a kind of wonder. "There's this incredible life of the zone. All these workers—riggers and crane operators and welders and diggers and truck drivers. And then there are the people who serve—the cops and the troopers and everybody. And they're interacting in the forbidden city. Inside the churches and the hotels, you can get massages, foot massages, chiropractic work. These guys are killing themselves lifting things, and they come in, have a hot meal, and somebody massages them for 40 minutes or an hour. They've taken over the ballroom of the other Marriott Hotel, and it's an r&r space, filled with 150 Barcaloungers, all covered with white sheets. The lights are dim, and there's a hundred cops and workers, sleeping. There's something about being in a war zone where people are thrown together. It's very appealing, and we've never experienced that here in that way. There are pictures everywhere, and the more you go, the more you see."

A show of Meyerowitz's cityscapes of Lower Manhattan is at the Ariel Meyerowitz Gallery, 580 Broadway, through December 15. See the Short List.

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