By David Brickman
York September 11 by Magnum Photographers
New York State Museum, through Oct. 14
damage done: photographs by Magnum photographers Steve
McCurry (top) and Eli Reed (bottom).
story behind New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers
is this: The international photographer-owned agency Magnum,
by bizarre coincidence, held its annual meeting on the evening
of Sept. 10, 2001, in New York. So, when the morning cataclysm
struck, instead of heading off to the four corners of the
earth, many of those veteran photographers went downtown and
got to work.
The resulting book and show, which debuted at the New-York
Historical Society in November and is now on tour, documents
the attack on the World Trade Center and its aftermath with
the intensity and beauty one has come to expect from Magnum’s
battle-hardened visual poets.
In addition to the images from last fall, there is a section
of the show featuring pictures by Magnum photographers of
the towers before they were struck. This reminds the viewer
of the powerful presence of the architecture that was lost.
In all, 15 photographers are included, as well as a 25-minute
silent film by videographer Evan Fairbanks, who is not part
of the agency. There are also artifacts from the museum’s
collection of WTC detritus interspersed with the photographs,
adding to the directness of the display.
If you have somehow forgotten exactly how you felt a year
ago, this exhibition will bring back the anguish, the fear,
the numbness, and the confusion of that terrible moment. The
fact that these are the only war pictures made on American
soil since the Civil War masterpieces of Mathew Brady and
Alexander Gardner is humbling to consider.
Are they worthy of that legacy? In some cases, yes.
The majority of the pictures on view are the work of six photographers:
Thomas Hoepker, Steve McCurry, Susan Meiselas, Gilles Peress,
Eli Reed and Larry Towell. Alex Webb and Paul Fusco each provided
three shots representing the aftermath, and the rest of the
contributors show just one image apiece. Most of the photographers
also provided short personal statements, which are mounted
on panels near their prints. These testimonials are often
as revealing as the photographs themselves, both as a description
of the events and as a window into the challenges facing the
photographers as they attempted to do their job.
McCurry’s color work begins the show and, along with black-and-white
pictures by Towell, captures the scene in the most arresting
way. Here, one is immediately and clearly plunged into the
chaos of the disaster, and the urgency of the response to
A very large print by McCurry shows a line of firefighters
from above as they wend their way across the smoking rubble
of Ground Zero in the predawn of Sept. 12 with a long, pale
hose. They are hunched to their grim task like soldiers going
into battle. McCurry, in his statement, describes his own
furtive trek “under cover of darkness” followed by cutting
through the wire of a perimeter fence to gain the access that
resulted in this picture, and you feel you are reading a war
story. Fact, not fiction, in downtown Manhattan.
Towell’s work focuses on everyday citizens caught up in the
maelstrom of the towers’ collapse, catching individuals’ expressions
of dismay and confusion. The black-and-white tones recall
images from all the wars of the 20th century. His shot of
a dazed man pausing to examine one of the millions of pieces
of paper strewn all about him in the street seems to sum up
the incomprehensibility of that particular day in our history.
Fusco, a 30-year Magnum member, wrote, “What do these pictures
tell the story of? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows
yet what this story really is about. I do know that in its
darkness and cruelty, it is the most horrible story I’ve ever
covered.” Despite his apparent frustration and despair, the
71-year-old Fusco’s images of a candlelit memorial in Union
Square are full of tenderness and hope.
Other images in the show stand out in their graphic beauty,
poignant detail and memorable symbolism: a dust-caked statue
of a businessman peering into his briefcase, oblivious to
the destruction around him, by Meiselas; firefighters surveying
the damage at Ground Zero through the frame of tremendous
blown-out plate glass windows, by Reed; and two exotic-looking
downtown residents, masked against the fumes but still fashionably
dressed as they explore their neighborhood, by Webb.
Visitors to the gallery are noticeably quiet, but none more
so than those viewing the film by Fairbanks, a TV cameraman
whose office was in the church next to the Trade Center that
later became a refuge for victims and workers. His live footage
of the fire, the attempt at forming a rescue plan, and people
fleeing the collapse of the first tower, is mesmerizing, yet
feels more reverent than sensationalistic.
The film and photographs are powerful documents of a critical
moment in history made by some of the people best able to
do the job, and are extremely well presented. But frankly,
the Magnum show pales in comparison to the artifacts collected
by the museum.
By all means, see the Magnum show. Then go across the lobby
and enter the newly unveiled first phase of The World Trade
Center: Rescue Recovery Response, a permanent exhibit
in the museum’s New York Metropolis Hall. There, you will
see the most amazing things—far more incredible than any work
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a badly damaged fire engine,
one of the first to arrive on the scene of the attack, in
which four of the six men operating it were killed when debris
from the falling North Tower crushed it. To have salvaged
this object and put it on public view was an act of great
vision and courage. That process is documented in the exhibit,
as is the broader story of salvage and selection, and it is
well worth reading.
Two additional phases of the exhibit are set to open in December.
The staff of the museum deserve kudos for the tremendous job
they’ve undertaken to create this important educational experience.
Another show of interest in relation to the Magnum exhibition
has just opened at Shutter Speed Photo (281 New Scotland Ave.,
Albany) and will run through Nov. 11. Ground Zero: First
Rescue Days consists of a small selection of about 15
color photographs by amateur photographer Thomas B. Maslanka
Jr., a member of the NY Urban/Technical Search & Rescue
Team who had access to scenes and sites of the WTC aftermath
that journalists were not allowed to photograph. His pictures
concentrate on members of the rescue teams at work, and are
worth a look—though taken with disposable cameras, some of
the images rival those of the Magnum photographers in their
poignancy and directness. The show officially opened yesterday
(Wednesday, Sept. 11).