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By David Brickman

New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers

The New York State Museum, through Oct. 14

The damage done: photographs by Magnum photographers Steve McCurry (top) and Eli Reed (bottom).

The 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 it.

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 of art.

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).

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