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Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive

Joel Meyerowitz

By Jesse Kornbluth
Published: Sep 10, 2016
Category: Art and Photography

I published this a decade ago. Every year 9/11 came around, and I thought that I should feature it again, but I couldn’t bear to look at it, so I didn’t. Now I can. Perhaps you can too.

A few days after 9/11, Joel Meyerowitz — famed for landscapes of extreme beauty and serenity — went to the site of the World Trade Center. He talked his way into the “pile” and set up his large-format wooden view camera. He often got thrown out; he’d scurry around to another entrance and slip in again. Some officials were obnoxious. Some tolerated him. A few understood that he represented almost the only chance at an ongoing record and befriended him.

He stayed there, day and night, for eight-and-a-half months, until the workers left and only a clean, empty hole remained. He took 8,500 pictures.

In 2002, my wife and I went to a show of this work. Like most people, we walked through the exhibit in stunned silence. The images were completely brutal and oddly beautiful, challenging beyond our immediate ability to respond. To look at them — any of them — took you back to that day, and what you felt, and the people you lost.

That’s a lot to deal with.

In 2002, I couldn’t. And it didn’t end. I couldn’t read about 9/11. Couldn’t watch the movies. It wasn’t that I needed to push 9/11 out of my head — I just needed to hold it in my mind in my own way. And I didn’t have a language to do that.

In 2006, Meyerowitz published “Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive.” It’s massive — 15” x 11” pages, some double-spread, some that fold out. More than 400 pictures. 340 pages. Eight-and-a-half pounds. [To buy “Aftermath” from Amazon, click here.]

Ah, if only they weighed that little on the heart.

“Aftermath” starts, as it should, with “before” pictures, taken from Meyerowitz’s studio. Architecturally, these were not distinguished buildings, but Meyerowitz gives them symbolism and grandeur. Here they are at night, the offices brightly lit against a dark blue sky streaked with clouds. Here’s one in the morning mist, the towers almost ivory against the clouds. And then there’s one at dusk, with dark, red-flecked clouds streaming from the buildings.

And then it was gone, and Joel Meyerowitz went to work.

“I was the observer,” he writes, “but as I made my tours around the zone, I was also observed…and slowly, as the weeks passed, I could feel myself being woven into the fabric of the site….Part of what I was there to do, I came to feel, was not simply to watch, but also to listen. As a result, I cried with men on the site almost every day. Often, I didn’t even know their names.”

“I cried with men…” This is a privileged zone; I think back to Whitman nursing the Civil War wounded. You will have your own associations; an event bigger than the mind can comprehend forces you beyond the event, into myth and history. Scale. That’s the subject. And that’s the problem.

Two 110-story buildings fall straight down into a mass of steel no more than 200′ feet high. Somewhere in there are the bodies and body parts of thousands of people. As you turn the pages, you begin to grasp the magnitude of the effort — like the need for the biggest crane in America, trucked in on 18 flatbeds. And, at the same time, the delicacy of the recovery operation — men with rakes, men on their knees, searching for the smallest bones.

Herculean strength and surgical finesse, a feat of engineering and spirituality never before witnessed on this planet.

And Meyerowitz got it. His camera got it all. Jagged steel that had to be cut and shaped so that, when it was removed, no one would be ripped open by it. Men with biceps like thighs, and tattoos, and hard hats, men who came there because it was where the trouble was. Heroic men. Men like statues.

Meyerowitz is an artist, and he began to see the artistic references in his pictures. “The smashed vault of the Winter Garden seemed to echo the Baths of Caracalla in Rome.” The dust in interior spaces reminded him of Pompeii. Men working under lights at night took him to Rembrandt and “The Night Watch.”  And, of course, there was the steel twisted in the shape of a Cross.

Meyerowitz does not often photograph people; the places where they are and what they see there suffice for him. But there are portraits here, and they have huge impact. Somehow these men and women have taken Meyerowitz’s measure, or maybe they’re just too affected to hide themselves — whatever the reason, they hold nothing back.

To see these workers and cops and firemen is to see them whole, in all their nobility and fragility. A worker stands in the glare of lights, telling the photographer that he’d been injured earlier that day and now, five stitches later, was back on the pile. A cop chokes up looking at a photo of a lost friend. A father and his surviving son hunt for the body of a lost son and brother. And the ritual of recovery! The honor guard forms. The flag-draped sled is carried out as work stops and everyone stands at attention. And then, back to work, raking, raking. [There’s an online gallery here.]

The arrangement is chronological, a trip through time. But not quite. There’s a shot of a man at dusk, his shift over, on his knees, still looking for bones. “The Gleaners,” you think, and centuries disappear.

Actually, quite a lot disappears as you move through “Aftermath.” Like whatever distance from 9/11 you’ve engineered for yourself as the years have passed. You will almost surely cry, and cry often. Those tears are a blessing, a purification, a healing. They give you a way — they gave me a way, anyway — to tell the story of 9/11 again, tell it in a way that’s about the place and the people and not about the politics and everything that followed.

Those tears are also an entitlement. They earn you the right to see the last two pages of the book. On one level, those two pictures are completely banal — your kid could have taken them. But your kid didn’t. Joel Meyerowitz did. He walked into the ruins as an obligation to the people who died there and the people who worked to bring them home, and when it was over, he was changed. And he took some pictures — very simple, very humble pictures — that will make you glad he gave that much of himself.  They will also make you glad you took some time to look, to remember, to feel.