September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Heroism, and Hope

They’ve been traveling downtown in hordes for weeks, especially on autumnally sunny weekend afternoons; I snake past them to get to the subway. The out-of-town visitors wear red-white-and-blue ribbons and T-shirts saluting New York’s cops and firefighters; they consult their guidebooks to orient themselves southward. The in-town visitors wear faces that say there but for the grace of God went I; they consult the Empire State Building to orient themselves northward, since their southern reference has vanished.

And all of them carry cameras. Ignoring the persistent smell of burnt buildings, computers, and flesh that continues to hang in the air, they snap. They shoot. They roll tape and click digital images of wreckage and ruin, some with the excitement of safari tourists, but most with the solemnity of pilgrims at a holy place who want to say they’ve been to Ground Zero at least once in their lives.

Some local residents are exasperated. Some think the gawking is unseemly, voyeuristic, a response more suitable to the spectacle of Macy’s Christmas windows. But I understand completely. And I say, take the subway to Fulton Street, everyone! Come on down. Bring your camera, too. Because until you see it for yourself, see the gaping chaos where two of the world’s tallest towers once stood and where some 5,000 people lost their lives at the hands of suicidal terrorists, you can’t believe it, not really. And even after you’ve seen it, you may not believe it, not unless you’ve got evidence you can hold in your hands when you begin to doubt your memory.

To that end—and to contribute to the charitable cause—a pair of similarly oversize but stylistically different photography books have just been published featuring visual images of an event that regularly slips the tracks of logic connecting our eyes to our brains.

New York September 11 (a portion of the proceeds goes to The New York Times 9/11 Neediest Fund), by photographers from the respected Magnum syndicate, is the ”grander” book. The pictures are elegantly composed, as befits the work of veteran photojournalists hewing to the traditions of Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson: A firefighter is perfectly framed in a photo by Steve McCurry so that the ladder he is climbing cuts diagonally across the jagged frame of a broken window; a coffee cart abandoned on a dust-choked street in a composition by Gilles Peress looks like an object in an Edward Hopper painting. There’s an introductory essay by journalist David Halberstam, and first-person accounts from the photographers themselves on how they got their stories. This book is masterful, but also detached. It’s a portfolio with its eyes on civic spirit, history, and the future.

In contrast, September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Heroism, and Hope (proceeds go to the September 11th Fund), by the editors of New York magazine, is an immediate, on-the-ground report. There’s no text other than short reportorial captions that put the photos in context. (Next to Shannon Stapleton’s electrifying picture of a fireman running up a flight of stairs while office workers queue to descend, there’s this: ”The public address system advised people to remain in their offices, but most took to the stairways, which were eerily quiet and orderly.”) There are, of course, the requisite pictures of obscenely graceful twisted segments of busted World Trade facade. But the editors don’t flinch from including the horrifying, unforgettable image of workers hanging helpless from upper-floor windows billowing with smoke (many of whom ultimately jumped rather than burn to death). And they also pause to include homely gestures: hands taping a poster of a missing person to a wall covered with similar pleas, a schoolkid’s interpretive drawing of the burning towers.

The first book is stately, the second is intimate. Studied separately, each is stunning enough, awesome, whatever adjective is proper for assessing pictures from hell. Taken together, though, a new understanding emerges: This was a day of tragedy for the ages in a city that continues to pulse with life right here and now. New York: A September 11: A-

September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Heroism, and Hope
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