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 failedthe "crime scene" was, after all, five blocks awayMeyerowitz 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 artistsincluding Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and Ben Shahnbrought 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 descriptionthings 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.
"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 chairschairs 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 doingwhat my goal wasand 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 swordsupright. 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 FSAan exhaustive list of events, places, and things photographers were instructed to pay close attention to in each new townas his model for the ground zero archive. Meyerowitz's list includes street signs, fire hydrants, lampposts, manhole covers, curbs, and railingsall 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 workersriggers and crane operators and welders and diggers and truck drivers. And then there are the people who servethe 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.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you'll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.