Sunday, September 03, 2006
Pictures And Prose For 9/11
Patricia McDonough, a professional photographer with a fisheye lens, made this picture from her apartment’s living room within minutes of the first airliner’s impact.
You are the light,
You are the refuge,
There is no place to take shelter but yourself.
---Inscription over the Buddha's ashes
Let us be poised, and wise, and our own, today.
---Ralph Waldo Emerson
The morning after the storm
the melons alone
know nothing of it.
You have to grit your teeth just to get through Garrison Keillor's gripping review this morning of a new book called Watching The World Change: The Stories Behind The Images Of 9/11. I'm trying to imagine what reading the book would be like. Here is Garrison, taking you through it~~~
The New York Times
September 3, 2006
By GARRISON KEILLOR
It was a perfect late-summer day in New York, the sort of day when a person feels terribly lucky to be in the city. A man named Pavel Hlava was showing his brother Josef around town and raised his video camera toward the World Trade Center just in time to catch a bright object flashing in the sky and then a puff of smoke from the north face of the north tower. A French filmmaker, Jules Naudet, who was making a documentary about firefighters, was with a fire truck responding to a gas leak at Lispenard and Church Streets downtown when he heard the roar of a jet engine and raised his camera to catch the plane too. And so did two Webcams from an apartment window in Brooklyn. It was 8:46 a.m. on the 11th of September, 2001. At 8:49 a.m., CNN went live with a shot of the towers from a camera on the West Side. The second plane hit the south tower at 9:03, and by that time dozens of cameras were on the scene, aiming upward.
In his apartment at Broadway and Franklin Street, Lyle Owerko heard the first explosion, grabbed a Canon EOS 3 with a 400-millimeter zoom lens, dashed downstairs and around the corner to Chambers Street. “Life was still oddly normal,” he tells David Friend. “People stood buying bagels and coffee [from] corner street vendors.” Tom Flynn, a CBS News producer, was reading the morning paper on his deck in the West Village when “a plane went over the trees in my garden. It was low, it was loud, and it was determined. It was not right. It seemed to be revving up. Then there was a pop, like the sound of a softball hitting a glove.” He said to his wife, “We’re under attack,” and jumped on his bike and headed downtown. At the trade center, he found a Merrill Lynch employee, Eddie Remy, shooting video, and signed him up for CBS. By the time the south tower collapsed, shortly before 10 a.m., there were hundreds of photographers on the scene, some on assignment, some freelancers, most of them amateurs. Grant Peterson, shooting for Brides magazine in his studio near Broome Street and Broadway, turned his 4-by-5 view camera toward the burning towers. A woman named Kelly Price bought disposable cameras at a bodega and was taking pictures of the fires when the south tower pancaked to the ground. She raced down Broadway, running for her life, stopped at Pine Street and took a picture of the advancing Niagara of dust and debris and a man running ahead of it. He is holding a camera in his right hand and glancing over his left shoulder.
Friend, who was director of photography at the old Life magazine, writes: “As the morning crept on, New Yorkers poured into the streets, many to help, many in flight, all of them aghast. Out, too, came their cameras. Men and women by the hundreds, then thousands — bystanders with point-and-shoots, TV news teams, photojournalists by the score — felt compelled to snap history, fiery and cruel against the blue. People photographed from windows and parapets and landings. They photographed as they fled: in cars, across bridges, up avenues blanketed in drifts of ash and dust. They even photographed the images on their television sets as they watched the world changing, right there on the screen.” And soon thereafter, rescue workers in dusty yellow slickers started showing up at the Time & Life Building in Midtown trying to sell pictures they had taken.
A brief review can’t do justice to “Watching the World Change,” a lucid, thoughtful and wide-ranging book. In truth, Friend’s excellent writing conveys more of the truth of the day than photographs can. The picture of the three firemen raising an American flag over the ruins, which became an icon of 9/11, is not nearly so gripping as the story he tells of the exploitation of the picture, the feelings of the photographer, Thomas Franklin, and the stoical refusal of the three firemen to be lionized (though they did approve plans for a bronze statue of themselves, 18 feet tall on a 12-foot marble pedestal).
Photography is meant to convey reality, but some realities were judged unbearable. Jules Naudet arrived at the north tower with the men of Engine 7, Ladder 1, his camera running. He saw a screaming woman who was burning in an inferno of aviation fuel that had poured down an elevator shaft and decided, “I didn’t think anyone should have to see this.” An Associated Press photograph of a dark-skinned man falling through the air, upside down, his arms at his sides, one leg lifted, was printed in some newspapers; most considered it too graphic. The Daily News, after debate among the editors, published a picture of a severed hand lying in the street — “You can’t do the story without doing the story,” said the editor, Edward Kosner. French television, but not American, showed “scenes of plummeting people . . . one after another. Some tumbled. Some held hands, jumping in pairs, or three and four at a time.” Owerko, shooting the burning north tower, heard the crowd around him let out a long gasp: “I looked up to see an object descending from the tower. I recognized it to be a person and stood frozen as the body flipped and turned in a slow, tragic ballet, down to the courtyard. People screamed and cried. I watched in shock as another human shape began falling to earth. . . . I clicked away. . . . I wasn’t photographing death, it seemed to me. I felt, instead, that I was preserving the last moment of these individuals’ conscious existence.”
We saw photographs that week of buildings burning, stunned onlookers, dust-covered firemen. Very few pictures conveyed the fact that people just like us, our fellow passengers on the subway, suddenly found themselves in a mortal predicament and many died horribly. We who weren’t downtown that morning tried to comprehend the horror. The most electrifying picture I remember from that week was a snapshot by a Port Authority employee, John Labriola, descending with other office workers in a stairwell of the north tower. A handsome young fireman is ascending the stairs, his eyes open wide, perspiring, hauling gear. All week one had seen distant images of fire and smoke, but here was a shot from inside a building about to collapse, and you looked at the fireman and thought, “My God, that man is about to be crushed to death.” (In fact, he escaped with a minute to spare, Friend reports.)
But mainly a cool decorum prevailed. We were shown pictures of this and not of that, allowed to see this and not look over there. The mainstream media seized upon inspirational and patriotic images, such as the picture of the three firemen; thus began a sort of mythification of the day into which George W. Bush and Rudolph Giuliani entered, bearing spears and shields. Photography assisted in that. Photography couldn’t convey the failure of national defense and intelligence, or the failure of the city of New York, even after the 1993 bombing of the trade center, to coordinate police and fire communications, a failure that cost many lives that morning, or certain tragic choices in the design of the towers. You need prose reporting for that. And in the end the images become common and one turns to words to find the reality. “The one conclusion I came to on 9/11 is that people in the stairwell . . . really were in ‘a state of grace.’ They helped each other. They didn’t panic,” Labriola says. “Most people are basically good. I knew this, with certainty, because I had gone through the crucible. What a great example people left: be selfless, help the person around you and get through it.”
Garrison Keillor is the host and writer of “A Prairie Home Companion” and the author of 16 books. He is the editor, most recently, of an anthology titled “Good Poems for Hard Times.”
Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company http://www.nytimes.com/2006/09/03/books/review/Keillor.t.html?8bu&emc=bu