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Remembering 9/11: Exhibit at International Center of Photography

Published on
October 5

September 11, 2001 was the first time I ever woke up my parents with bad news.

I was listening to the radio that day, attempting to wake up for another underwhelming day of my senior year in high school, and immediately ran down the hall to explain to them what little I understood. They jumped out of bed and we were glued to the television for the remainder of the morning, as CNN played on repeat that now infamous image of the second plane…

Memories come flooding back as I walk through the thick silence of the galleries at the International Center for Photography, now showing Remembering 9/11, a photographic memorial of this event that would come to fundamentally change our world. Subject matter of the photographs ranges from mangled piles of steel to funeral marches to missing person’s posters. Some are clinical yet impressive, aerial shots taken from a helicopter in the days and months following the attack, captured stunningly by Gregg Brown, who was commissioned by the city to document Ground Zero from above. The highlight is an accidental double exposure of the towers from May 2001, overlain by an image of their destruction. The accident of the image is nearly as unbelievable as the vivid destruction it portrays.

There are numerous photos of funerals, many for public service people who perished. The black and white images emanate a stone gray that conveys helplessness and despair with a peculiar sharpness and clarity.  Interspersed are other full-color images filled with the grief-stricken, tear-stained faces of friends and loved ones left to cope with their personal tragedies amidst the chaotic aftermath. It is a striking contrast between the stoicism of official ceremonies the extreme intimacy of grief, sometimes captured simultaneously in a single frame.

The common thread that seems to run through many of these images is reflection, oftentimes literally, sometimes figuratively. There is the photo of a lamppost, plastered with other photos – recent birthdays, wedding portraits, and desperate pleas of “last seen at…”. Next to the lamppost, a man is videotaping passers by. The date of the photograph is a few weeks after 9/11. There is a shot of a dark pane of glass deflects a face staring into it, illuminated by candles lit in honor of the departed. There are eyes shining with tears, as they process the horrors of the terror-stricken world they see around them.

Eugene Richards, Funeral in Staten Island for Firefighter John Schardt, Engine Company 201, December 31, 2001, from Stepping Through the Ashes. © Eugene Richards. Courtesy the artistThere may be no better medium than photography to capture the horror and ensuing humanity that was wrought on 9/11. The precision and emotion within each of these frames commands attention, requires its own consideration, if one is to even attempt to re-construct the kaleidoscopic whole that is the collection of New Yorkers’ experiences on that day. Perhaps the most fascinating collection is excerpts from here is new york: a democracy of photographs,which reprises an impromptu exhibit started shortly after 9/11 that encouraged anyone to submit photographs of the city for inclusion in the gallery. The result was a rotating collection of photographs that lasted almost two years. The concept that holds these bare photos together, clipped to thin silver wires in a seemingly arbitrary order, is in itself an embodiment of the communal suffering and survival that took place in the aftermath of the attacks. Suddenly, one’s training or artistic merit was immaterial, as people of all walks of life began to document in an effort to come to terms with their surroundings.  The differing styles and perspectives, along with subject matter ranging from street corners covered in flowers to the incinerated pile of debris to pre-9/11 photos of the towers intact, span a seemingly epic cross-section of New York life and geography.

This remarkably diverse and dynamic exhibit is both a cathartic moving forward, and a memorial to those who never will. As memories from that day continue to surface, I realize that I was just old enough to understand that our world had changed forever, but just young enough not to have any idea what that would mean. Even 3,000 miles away from Ground Zero, this day, this moment had hit me too close to home.

The last room I enter houses Memory Remains: Artifacts at Hangar 17, by Francesc Torres. It is a series of projected photographs that closely examine the twisted pieces of steel and other large debris that were picked out of the pile and now reside in an empty air hangar at JFK. The images surround a folded paper boat that has been rescued from the wreckage, sitting alone on a pedestal in the middle of the room. Singed and battered, it is miraculously, impossibly intact. I can’t think of a more potent metaphor for the individual, for New York, for our nation on that day. An image truly is worth a thousand words.