Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive

by Matt Damsker

 

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Photographs and text by Joel Meyerowitz. Sept. 2006; 350 pages, 400 color plates; $75.00 hardback; ISBN No. 0-7148-4655-4. Published by Phaidon Press, 180 Varick St., New York, N.Y. 10014; and Regent's Wharf, All Saints St., London N1 9PA. Website: http://www.phaidon.com .

Countless photojournalists must have envied Joel Meyerowitz his exclusive access to the ruins of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11. It may even seem a little unfair that he was granted such license for nearly a year during the cleanup of the site, since his permission came about partly because of his friendship with the father of Manhattan's park commissioner. Besides, Meyerowitz is a fine-art portraitist and not a newsman. But Ground Zero deserved an official photographer, and Meyerowitz was a superb choice. A New York native and one of color photography's early champions, he could be counted on to create a powerful and compassionate archive of post-9/11 imagery.

And that he has done, working diligently and passionately with a large-format wooden camera for about nine months, capturing so much more than the chaos of twisted metal and unimaginable debris across a 16-acre expanse that was pretty much unlike anything else in modern history. For Ground Zero is a kind of American Pompeii--mythic in its resonance, its ruins intermingled with the flesh and spirit of those who died there, a locus of civic tragedy that leaves a literal hole in the world. Meyerowitz's camera thus performs explorations of scale that continually match the vastness of Ground Zero's destruction with the dedicated humanity that is there to repair it. In so many of these shots, the large-format eye scans the gnarled, undone universe of metal and concrete, and it is not until we look closely that we notice the workers--human miniatures in hard hats and safety-orange vests--blended into the wreckage, providing visual grace notes of caring and continuity amidst the apocalypse.

Not surprisingly, such photos are Meyerowitz's best and most powerful visions from this unique archive. They amount to monumental floodings of sheer visual information that also convey the beauty of pure atmosphere: indigo dusk, with tall, undamaged skyscrapers in the background; sleepless night, with workers in the glare of lights that reflect off the rising smoke and dust; and golden morning, with sunlight filtering through like hope. In their richness of color and infinity of detail, these shots may remind us of Andreas Gursky's vast photo-canvases, but in this case Meyerowitz is the anti-Gursky, his images exuding unforced pathos and documentarian zeal, as opposed to Gursky's dry, clinical vision of modernity. More quietly dramatic, of course, are the many single portraits of the volunteers, laborers, and officials who bring life and optimism to Ground Zero. Meyerowitz locates the patriotic personal style of their garb, with their flag-patterned hard hats and bandanas, along with their indefatigable pride in what they are doing, and what anyone must do in any aftermath: Go on.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published this past November.