The World Trade Center and lower Manhattan
Today is September 11, 2011 – the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and the attempted attack on Washington, DC which ended up with the airplane crashing in Pennsylvania after passengers on board fought back.
I guess we all need to remember those who lost their lives on that terrible day – both the innocent victims on those planes and on the ground who were in the wrong place at the wrong time, and those who voluntarily went into harm’s way and lost their lives trying to protect others.
I know that there will be a lot of memorials held today, so I won’t try to compete with them. I’ll just give my account of how I viewed that day ten years ago. First off, I have to say that the office where I worked then and still work now is only three blocks from the World Trade Center site here in New York. Unlike those in the wrong place at the wrong time, I was fortunate. On September 11, 2001, I was in southern Colorado at a workshop to photograph nude models.
Still, like everybody else, I had my moments of finding out what happened. It began when I left my balcony level room in the large B&B where I and the other two photographers stayed. Downstairs, our hostess, Betty, was on the telephone in the kitchen. I heard her talking with an incredulous tone in the voice.
“No??? It can’t be!!!” she said.
Being from the big city, I just figured that it was some local gossip, like some woman running away with another woman’s husband. When I got down to the ground floor, I looked at the television and saw what had really happened: an airplane had crashed into one of the World Trade Center towers. There weren’t many details forthcoming, but I just figured that it was a Cessna or a small airplane like that. At any rate, I knew it would mean an evacuation of lower Manhattan.
Then the truth of the matter came out when we heard that the second tower had been hit by a passenger jet. I remember telling the workshop instructor, Steve Anchell, that as a New Yorker, part of me wished that I was back there with the other residents of the city. Steve said that I was better off where I was. Of course, he was right, but it was hard to not have some guilty feelings when I thought of people that I knew being in peril at home.
Despite the events of the day, we continued to do what we were there to do: create photographic art of the nude figure. I don’t think it was easy for any of us to concentrate on photography, but perhaps at that moment in time, what the world needed was to be shown that beauty does still exist rather than just hatred and horror.
My other big memory of the day came at lunchtime. We were in a restaurant watching the news on TV, when one of the reporters said the twin towers of the World Trade Center were gone. “Gone???,” I thought to myself. “How can they be gone? How can two buildings so huge just disappear?” Sadly, I was wrong. I remember making a phone call from the restaurant to one of my friends at the office, as I knew everybody would have been evacuated and I figured that he’d be home by then. He was, and he told me of the panic and commotion that followed the day’s events.
Then there was my getting home to New York. I had flown into the airport at Albuquerque, where I joined one of the other photographers, Bill, in driving up to Colorado. After the workshop ended on Friday morning, we spend the day riding back to Albuquerque. When we arrived at the hotel, I still didn’t know if my flight the following day would be able to get to New York.
The World Trade Center, seen from the crown of the Statue of Liberty
After watching the news on TV that night, I still didn’t know. Neither did people at the airline, TWA. So, when I woke up Saturday morning, I still didn’t know if I’d be going home that day. I called TWA and was put on hold for a good length of time, watching the TV news as I waited. Then I saw a crawler across the bottom of the screen saying that National Airport in Washington, DC was the only major airport still not open, and that JFK in New York would be fully open for the first time that day. When someone from TWA finally came on the line, I told him about the news of JFK being open – and he told me that he had not even known that yet!
I flew from Albuquerque to St. Louis. At the Albuquerque airport, I saw an 80-something woman in a wheelchair have her nail file taken away by security. Then, at St. Louis, when I boarded the flight to New York, I saw a dark skinned Middle Eastern/Central Asian looking young man sitting on the plane. I think I must have involuntarily stared at him for at least five seconds before I moved on to my seat.
The flight wasn’t very full and was uneventful – until we flew over the Hudson River in the early evening with Manhattan clearly visible below to the left. I think my reaction and what happened later can be best said by repeating these lines from the e-mail that I sent to those at the workshop a few days afterwards:
“I went back to work today and saw for myself what downtown Manhattan is like, but in a way I got a better idea Saturday. Toward the end of my flight from St. Louis to New York, my airplane flew opposite the Hudson River from NYC. I recognized a lot of landmarks as we headed south – the Tappan Zee Bridge spanning the Hudson north of the city; the George Washington Bridge; Central Park; Madison Square Garden and the Empire State Building. Finally, we flew past lower Manhattan. Where once the twin towers had stood was now just a vast square empty lot, illuminated by the lights of the rescue workers, a cloud of smoke and dust still hovering over the site.
Lower Manhattan, with the twin towers
“A shroud of silence seemed to envelope everyone on board. My heart began to beat faster, uncontrollably. It was like seeing the planet Saturn through the lens of a telescope for the first time – I had seen photos of those rings many times, but not until I saw it myself, with my own eyes, did it really register with me that such a thing could exist. Seeing the images of the towers in flame and then collapsing seemed real enough, but not until I saw it myself – that great empty lot below me – did I finally understand what had happened.
“As the plane flew past the tip of Manhattan on its way to JFK, the island stretched out in front of me, south to north. It was probably the best view I’ve ever had of it – like so many photos I’ve seen – but my eyes couldn’t help but stay focused on that cloud of smoke, rising up and then drifting south over the harbor. I mentioned aloud that my office is 3 blocks from the site. The man sitting in front of me told me that his daughter worked on the 69th floor in one of the towers. Normally, he said, she’d get to work at 8:30, but that day she was late. Perhaps miracles do still happen to some. I saw a magnificent sunset – the sun a fiery red disc whose lower half was already hidden below the horizon – but that drifting cloud was all that seemed to matter, ever present even as I rode home in the taxi.
The twin towers with Trinity Church. (The fingerprint pattern on the towers is a digital artifact.)
“Things were beginning to return to normal today downtown, but there were still a great deal of barricades, police, soldiers in combat fatigues, photographers. Many had masks covering their faces. In my office I heard people talking about their experiences last Tuesday. My boss said it was horrific and that he’s had trouble sleeping at night since then, but he also said that he wouldn’t have missed it for anything. A friend of mine who did not know that I was away asked me if I had tried to photograph it. No, I said – I was in Colorado photographing some beautiful nude models. He seemed to think that what I did was better. I guess he was right – perhaps some things are better experienced through the tales of others.”
So, that was it. While my co-workers were running for their lives, I was across the country photographing nude models. My mother got a lot of phone calls from relatives asking if I was okay, and she told them that I was away in Colorado. I got a bunch of e-mails, too, asking about me. One of them came from Germany, from a German photographer I had met in New York in 1995 at a workshop with Lucien Clergue. When I told him where I was and what I was doing, he responded by writing that he never thought of nude photography as something to counter terrorism. Sometimes, I suppose, the things that we do can have unexpected rewards. In fact, had it not been for a holiday that I observe, I probably would have been in Colorado the week before and in New York the week of 9/11.
The view down to the Brooklyn Bridge (right) and Manhattan Bridge (left)
As for later thoughts, I have one thing to add. I used to see the Trade Center towers looming up in the sky when I would leave a the stores on Park Row, across the street from City Hall Park. When leaving those stores after the towers had been destroyed, they were of course no longer to be seen. However, rather than think to myself that it’s hard to believe that buildings so massive could be gone, my thoughts were instead this: that it was hard to believe that buildings so massive could have ever been there in the first place.
Still, there is a time for looking back and a time for looking ahead. I think today is a good time for both. Toward this end, I looked through my boxes of old 35mm transparencies and found some Kodachrome slides that I made of the Trade Center in 1980 and 1981. I’m posting some of them here.
Not only were the twin towers an impressive sight, but the view from the observation deck on top was equally impressive. Oddly enough, I only went up to the top once. Besides the view from the roof, what was memorable – and unnerving – was the view from the indoor observation deck. The walls were totally transparent from floor to ceiling, and one could sit on narrow benches looking out and down. What was unnerving was the feeling that if you were to slip off the bench, you would fall all the way down, with no wall to stop you from doing so.
The view north toward midtown and the Empire State Building
As to looking forward, I recently took my Canon S90 pocket camera with me to work and photographed the new construction going on at Ground Zero on my lunch hour. I’m posting these here, too. The main building being constructed is One World Trade Center, which will be the tallest building in the United States when completed, but others are being built as well. Let’s hope they and the memorial do justice to those who worked and perished there.
The view down Fulton Street toward 1 WTC
1 WTC, seen from the graveyard behind St. Paul's Chapel
1 WTC, with 7 WTC to its right. The latter is a privately-owned bulding completed several years ago.
A view toward 1 WTC, from the bridge to the World Financial Center
A view of the WTC site, with one of the other new buildings under construction
A look at the greenery of the WTC Memorial, seen from the World Financial Center
My final photo of the post is one of the old ones of the twin towers. As I recall, I made this one from Liberty Island – the home of the Statue of Liberty – in New York harbor. It was just a little experiment in making in-camera double exposures, with Ellis Island on the bottom and the island of Manhattan, with the Trade Center prominent, hovering above. The thing worked and the photo came out okay.
Looking at this photo now, seeing the towers floating in the clouds, knowing what ultimately happened to them, it looks almost like an apotheosis of sorts, with the towers floating up to heaven.
Ahh, if only……