9/11 on film: Ever-growing photo display

By MELISSA SECKORA  |  Sept. 9, 2002 at 5:46 PM
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WASHINGTON, Sept. 9 (UPI) -- There are many ways to remember the terrorist attacks on America on that warm autumn morning last year. We remember the planes, the buildings, the fire, the smoke, the ash, and the faces of the living, the missing and the dead.

We remember the people who we now call heroes -- the people who broke their backs to make sure no one was left missing. We remember the makeshift signs -- "We are not afraid"; "You ran in when we all ran out. For that we are forever grateful"; "Our prayers are with you"; "Missing Michael Taylor. Call with info." We remember what became known as Ground Zero -- the pit, the pile, the zone.

These things that we remember have been captured on film by professionals, and by ordinary people, in "here is new york: a democracy of photographs," a photographic memorial that opened Sept. 7 at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

It is a memorial about "hope, devastation, life, death, shock, horror, unity, heroism, fear, disbelief, anger, love, courage, sadness, grief, compassion, and spirit," the exhibition's organizers say. But, more importantly, the memorial is the evidence that some of us have already forgotten about -- the only evidence we really need to keep fighting -- the pictures of our innocent dead, wounded, and displaced.

When you first enter the exhibition space, there is a photo of a mother squatting down next to her baby. The two of them are a far distance from Manhattan, sitting high up on a rooftop. The mother is looking down at her baby, but you can imagine that she at one point looked up at what remained of the smoldering towers and then looked down at her baby again in disbelief. Back and forth, you imagine her, looking down at her baby and up at the towers until she could start to register what was happening.

There is a picture of a well-dressed man. He is covered in white powdery debris. He looks like he is barely breathing -- yet there he is, smoking a cigarette. His wispy gray hair is blowing in the wind, his eyes stare out straight ahead, and his water bottle is half empty. There are people around him who appear untouched by the morning's events, except for the fact that they are on their cell phones desperately trying to reach family or friends.

There is a picture of a table perfectly set with linen napkins and lovely china. The wine is poured, the bread is placed, and the food is served. The picture speaks of another time -- a picture taken at Windows of the World on a romantic evening before Sept. 11.

There are many portraits of firemen, police officers, construction workers and paramedics. They wear hard hats and their faces are red and tired.

There is a picture of a father in uniform with his two daughters. One girl has her eyes closed. She is resting her head on her father's steady arm. The other is looking at the ground. It appears that they are at a cemetery. We don't know these people, or who they buried that day, but we can only hope it was not a mother.

There are many patriotic portraits of the American flag: a man waving his flag high in the sky; a casket adorned in red, white and blue; a rosy cheek or white t-shirt painted with the stars and stripes. And there are many more pictures that make your stomach rise up to your throat: a plane just about to crash into the towers; bodies falling from the towers; a gaping wound of fire and smoke in the side of the Pentagon.

"Here is new york," taken from the title of E.B. White's 1949 essay, started with one photograph displayed in the window of a store on Prince Street in New York's SoHo. Within months, thousands of photographs were collected, "clipped to wires like laundry drying in the alleyways of Naples, Italy," one of the exhibition's founding directors, Michael Shulan, says in an essay. And that is how the pictures are displayed here, too.

There are no frames or names. According to Shulan, "The intent is to commemorate and memorialize these tragic events, showing what happened from as many different angles as possible, as an aid both to healing and to grasping the human dimension of what took place."

Washington, D.C., is the third major venue for the exhibition in the United States (thousands of photographs have already been displayed in New York and Chicago). The pictures featured at the Corcoran include the debut of 500 images from the Pentagon and the Flight 93 crash site in Pennsylvania. Organizers are also calling on those in the Washington area to contribute their own photographs relating to the events of Sept. 11, which will be scanned and added to an archive that is already 5,000 pictures strong. As the Corcoran notes, the idea behind the roving exhibit is to collect, organize, display and preserve for historical purposes the broadest possible view of Sept. 11 and its aftermath.

"Here is new york: a democracy of photographs" will be on display at the Corcoran Gallery of Art through Nov. 11, 2002. A separate electronic exhibition of Sept. 11 will be on display on the Ellipse, Sept. 8-12. Additional photographs will be on display in Houston, Texas, Sept. 11-12, at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Hermann Park, and Sept. 14 to Oct. 13 at Memorial City Mall.

(Melissa Seckora is an editorial associate in the Washington, D.C., office of National Review. Her column, "D.C. Art Beat," appears regularly in National Review Online.)

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