In the wake of the attack on the World Trade Center, speculation about how artists will absorb or deflect the blow is much in the air. Will physical devastation, psychic upheaval, and near crippling anxiety spur or stymie the creative impulse? Will the work get more profound or more ephemeral? Rococo or abject? What lies between the ray of hope and the pall of despair? For one group of artists, the results are already in, and they’re pretty impressive. Photojournalists, professionally intimate with tragedy and its aftermath, have brought extraordinary images back from the hell downtown. Thoughtful, tough, full of feeling, and startlingly beautiful, their pictures have both fixed and shaped our experience of an event that even those who lived through it can’t quite comprehend. Because we tend to think of photojournalism as something that happens in “trouble spots” half a world away, it’s disconcerting to find the cameras focused so intently on our city and our distress, especially when we’re so little in control of the unfolding spectacle. But our appetite for the results, no matter how horrifying, is voracious, and it’s being fed by some of the most intrepid and accomplished artists in the world.
Staff photographers for The New York Times and the Daily News filled those papers with solid, stunning reportage in the days after the WTC attack, and they continue to provide a strong backbone for the Ground Zero narrative. Normally, these veterans would have a local story pretty much to themselves, but this time they’ve had to compete with every available wire service pro, a slew of on-the-spot amateurs, and high-profile international stars like Gilles Peress, James Nachtwey, Susan Meiselas, and Steve McCurry, whose color spreads in Time, The New Yorker, and The New York Times Magazine are models of the photojournalist’s art. Although some of these big-name photographers are based in New York, at any other time they would have been scattered around the globe, staking out war, famine, refugee camps, and civil unrest. But the Magnum agency, photojournalism’s venerable powerhouse, held its yearly meeting in Manhattan the evening of September 10, so its typically far-flung members were among the first on the scene at the World Trade Center the following morning. By the end of the week, they knew they had a book. Two weeks later, that book, New York September 11, by Magnum Photographers, with work by Peress, Meiselas, McCurry, Alex Webb, Larry Towell, Paul Fusco, Eli Reed, Bruce Gilden, and others, was at the printer; powerHouse Books hopes to have it in stores by the first week of November.
What these pictures will mean to us in a month or a year remains to be seen, but right now they exert an almost scary power. Even though the array of quickie special issues at the newsstands has a pornographic edge, I paw through them compulsively. I overdosed on TV coverage long ago, but I keep looking for a picture that will make it all real, help me understand, jolt me, make me feel something besides numb. Though this is probably too much to expect from a news photo, the best pictures deliver both substance and subtlety—qualities that come together only rarely in other news media. So there’s something satisfying in the sweeping grandeur of Nachtwey’s Time photo of facades leaning like woozy drunks between a curtain of brown smoke and a plain of rubble bleached white by unseen floodlights. Smack in the center of the photo, lined up with the magazine’s gutter, is a traffic light bearing a sign for Cortlandt Street, but in this ghost town the road itself is as obliterated as the sky. Just as elegantly composed, Nachtwey’s picture (also in Time) of three masked men emerging from the sickly golden glow of an ash cloud hovers between a cinematic dreamscape and an all-too-real nightmare vision.
Gilles Peress, in The New Yorker, wades into the chaos after the collapse and discovers a trio of firefighters dwarfed by the smoking wreckage and training a pathetic stream of water into a scene of endless, utter destruction. No matter how many times we see this landscape, it remains somehow incomprehensible—as fantastic as it is frightening. In the October Talk, Stephane Sednaoui, a French fashion photographer who volunteered for the clean-up crew and only took pictures on breaks from carrying off debris, captures the site at night with a kind of awe. Isolated, often heroic male figures; an eerily theatrical play of cold artificial light; twisted metal shards jutting into the smoke-filled sky like brutalist sculpture—who could have imagined these spooky tableaux?
Great photographers find order in a disordered world, beauty in the most blasted terrain. They can’t be trusted to tell us the truth—no artist can. But they can indicate a way out of the confusion and illuminate the path. When we can barely believe our own eyes, these witnesses help us come to grips, bit by bit, with what really happened. That’s clearly what draws people to the exhibition of WTC photos that opened last week in half of the former Agnès B. store at 116 Prince Street in Soho. Called “Here Is New York: Images From the Frontline of History,” it’s subtitled “A Democracy of Photographs,” and that democracy is a great part of its power. Photographers both known and unknown are invited to bring in their pictures to be digitally scanned and hung like laundry from wires strung along the walls. In this rotating accumulation, there are photos of the World Trade towers long before and just after the planes hit, portraits of rescue workers and shocked onlookers. A number of the images—including Edward Keating’s still life of an ash-coated tea set that looks like a relic from Pompeii—are immediately recognizable from the pages of the Times, whose staffers are particularly well represented. And the Magnum crew is in the house, primarily because one of the show’s organizers is Gilles Peress. Peress and Michael Shulan, a writer and the owner of the vacant storefront space, came up with the idea of a spontaneous, accessible photographic response to the events of September 11 and enlisted ace curator Alice Rose George (most recently the director of photography at Details) and School of Visual Arts honcho Charles Traub to help implement it. With donated computers and scanners manned by volunteers, many of them SVA students, the project was assembled in less than a week, and has quickly taken on a life of its own.
The “Here Is New York” flyer describes its mission simply: “We need to develop a new way of looking at and thinking about what has happened, as well as a way of making sense of all of the images that have besieged us and continue to haunt us.” That need to understand terrible events has apparently compelled both photographers and viewers to come together here, and everyone is welcome. One man brought in four little snapshots of the ruined interiors of his apartment near the site. They’re clipped to a wire not far from one of Jeff Mermelstein’s terrific photos from the Times magazine and a black-and-white picture of a desolate Nassau Street in the wake of the dust storm that already looks classic. Though a staffer will be happy to identify the authors of individual photos (and sell you a $25 digital copy to benefit the Children’s Aid Society), all of the pictures are displayed anonymously. “It should be a people’s gallery,” Shulan says one busy afternoon soon after setting up the space, “a place where I can put my kid’s photo next to one by Gilles Peress.”
The lack of hierarchy doesn’t stop one image from being stronger or more artful than another, but it does make the experience of viewing them more immediate and seamless. While it’s interesting to know that work by Joel Sternfeld, Angel Franco, Gus Powell, and Carolina Salguero is part of the mix, the star system has no place here. “Here Is New York” is successful partly because it’s not about success—it’s about sharing something that’s still too raw and fraught with meaning to put aside.
“Here Is New York” is open daily from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. at 116 Prince Street, near Greene Street, through October 28. Go to www.hereisnewyork.org for updated information.