I figure that three things are required in order to make good star trail photographs:
1. A location with very clear skies.
2. A location that does not suffer from light pollution.
3. A location where one can leave one’s camera outside without its being stolen.
Any of those three things could eliminate my home, New York City, from consideration.
Nonetheless, I made the photo that you see at the top here. My title for it is “The Great Wheel of Heaven, “ and I think that I shall probably never forget the circumstances under which it was made. In fact, tonight – September 12, 2009 – is the eighth anniversary (not the “eight year anniversary”!!!) of the making of this photo. Here’s the story behind it:
It was on Saturday, September 8, 2001, that I traveled by air from New York to Albuquerque, New Mexico. My purpose was to attend an art nude workshop in southern Colorado organized by Steve Anchell. It would be a small group, with just three photographers and three models. I would be meeting one of the other photographers – a fellow named Bill from California – at the Albuquerque airport, and from there we would ride up together to Colorado.
Bill’s plane arrived in close proximity to mine, and though we had never met before, we got along well. Bill did the driving as I had not been feeling totally well around then, and we headed north toward Colorado, stopping for lunch in Santa Fe and then for the night in Taos.
The next day we continued on to Crestone – our destination in Colorado – passing places such as the Rio Grande Gorge (I guess they didn’t name it the “Rio Grande Canyon” so as not to confuse it with that other canyon in Arizona) and Manassa, home of heavyweight champ Jack Dempsey. My biggest thrill, though, was seeing a Sinclair gas station for the first time in ages. As a kid, Sinclair was always my favorite gas station because of the dinosaur it had as its symbol, but Sinclair had disappeared from New York ages ago.
In Crestone, the three photographers – I, Bill and a fellow named George from Texas – stayed at a large B&B run by a woman named Betty. The house was basically a big log cabin and our rooms were on the second floor. My room had a balcony opening onto a clear view of the sky – a good place to set up a tripod and camera for a sky shot – but I was too tired from the drive that first day to get up in the middle of the night to end a long exposure. The following day, September 10, was the first full day of going out to photograph, and I was so tired by the end of the day that a night shot was also out of the question – and would seem to be for the rest of the week.
All of that changed, of course, on the following day – September 11, 2001. I remember leaving my room to go down for breakfast when I overheard Betty on the phone downstairs. “No. You’re kidding!,” she said. “It can’t be!” I figured that it was just some local gossip, like somebody’s wife running off with somebody else’s husband. Typical small town stuff like that.
When I got downstairs, the others there were watching a TV report of an airplane having crashed into the World Trade Center, which is only about three blocks from the office where I work. There weren’t many details at first, and I had just assumed that it was a small plane like a Cessna or a Piper. It wasn’t until sometime later that morning that the truth of it having been a terrorist attack on both of the Twin Towers became known. I was relieved that I wasn’t back at the office to have lived through that, yet part of me still felt guilty for not being there in New York with my colleagues.
Despite the horror of what happened and the stunned condition that we were in, the photo workshop continued as planned. Perhaps at that darkest hour the light of beauty was needed more than ever. There really wasn’t much else that we could do, anyway, except wait and listen like everybody else in the country. Of all the people involved with the workshop, the one who seemed the most visibly upset was a model named Jacqueline – and she was German, not American.
Still, there was more to come. When we broke for lunch and went to a local restaurant to eat, I heard a report on the TV saying that the towers were gone. “What do they mean by ‘gone’?,” I thought to myself. “They can’t be gone! How can two buildings so huge not be there any more???”
Well, I found out how soon enough. I even phoned a friend of mine from my office at his home number, because I knew that everybody would have been sent home. (I did find out afterwards that a woman in my office was initially not going to leave because she was afraid people would be forced to use their vacation time. Seriously.) My friend told me what it was like back in New York – the chaos, how he had to walk across the Brooklyn Bridge to get back home and so on.
At night, the four of us at Betty’s place stayed up late the next several days watching the news reports on TV. It was at this time that I thought of my star trails photograph. If I was going to stay up to the early hours of the morning watching the news, I may as well set up the camera (in this case, my Fuji 67 rangefinder) on that balcony to attempt a photo.
So that’s what I did on the night of September 12, 2001, trying to create a little bit of beauty out of catastrophe. I opened the shutter on the camera around 9 p.m. and I returned to shut it at 1 a.m. I think the aperture setting was f/5.6. I’m pretty sure that it was facing south, and there’s a random streak of light at the lower left of the image that I think may be an airplane landing at the airport in Alamosa.
Of course, the story continued, as I still had to fly home to New York. I think Bill and I left on Friday and returned to Albuquerque, where we spent the night. I still had no idea if my flights would leave as scheduled, so the next morning I called TWA (my airline) to find out. While on extended hold, I saw a crawler going across the screen on CNN telling that JKF airport in New York was now fully open again. When I actually got to speak with someone at TWA, I told this to him. He told me that he had not even heard that yet!
Indeed, my flights did depart as scheduled. At the Albuquerque airport, I remember seeing a very elderly woman in a wheelchair have her nail file taken away from her. That flight was pretty full, but when I changed planes in St. Louis, I saw that the flight to Kennedy was pretty empty. Once on the plane, I noticed a rather dark-skinned young man sitting in a seat. I think I stared at him for several seconds before I could tear my gaze away.
Finally, when we got to New York, the plane made a right turn to head south over the Hudson River. I was sitting in a window seat on the left side, so I got a good view of Manhattan. As we headed further south toward the Trade Center site, the plane got so quiet inside that one could almost hear the proverbial pin drop. I think everybody moved over to the left side to take a look – and there it was: a gaping hole in the ground with a huge plume of smoke rising high from it.
As the plane continued further on to the airport, I kept looking back to that huge plume of smoke. It was still visible when the wheels of the plane touched down on the runway at JFK. I guess I still haven’t forgotten it.