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The Power of Images at Our 'Second Pearl Harbor'

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

In a painful aftermath that seeks answers, action and comfort, the speed with which the news of America's "second Pearl Harbor" reached every corner of our consciousness was both startling and sobering.

Powerful though the information age may be in the transmission of words and ideas, images still rivet us. Within the first few hours of the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, two such images, one still, one video, gripped me and likely will remain with me until I die. The video was only a few seconds long: street-level footage of one of the World Trade Center towers collapsing.

In a storm of dust, the videographer trained his lens, not at the sky, but on the street for what he knew would be the inevitable – and deadly–tsunami of debris and chaos coming toward him. Before the wave engulfed him, there was an almost poignant moment of vulnerability as the cameraman reached forward to wipe his lens, so thick had the air become. Then, as people ran for their lives on either side of him, the billowing cloud from the huge collapse filled the frame. Just before the clip ended, a racing man can be seen lifted from his feet and hurled forward to the videographer's left.

For a brief instant, I said to myself: I have seen this before. And in fact I had, in the trailer to a Pierce Brosnan potboiler on tornadoes. The juxtaposition of the real with its special-effects counterpart was unsettling. The more so when I thought a few minutes later of the other similar footage I saw when Mt. St. Helens erupted – dramatic footage that cost the cameraman his life.

Unsettling in a different way was Reuters' photographer Peter Morgan's still photo of pedestrians in midtown Manhattan gaping at the smoldering Trade Center towers before their collapse. In this photograph the smoking towers are far in the distance; the pedestrians dominate the foreground. The sun on these people, who are miles away from the death and riot, is simply gorgeous, the sky is a storybook blue. Two young women in summer-weight clothes hold on to each other, their backs to the camera as they look, numbly one assumes, at the tragedy unfolding before them. Part of me irrationally wanted to erase the smoke from the Twin Towers. Part of me wanted to turn back the clock on this photo of a beautiful morning and PhotoShop the picture into merely another nice stock image of New York City.

But of course I could not. Turn back the clock, anyway.

Speed and sensory overload are the inevitable accompaniments to our electronic environment and I cannot honestly say that I did not race to a television, a radio and a computer screen to get my fill of what had happened. And, to be fair, the speed with which the networks, the newspapers, and related print, broadcast and electronic media updated their stories enabled me and millions like me to at least put parameters around the tragedy, the better to take it in, if not understand it.

Contrast this with what surely must have been the terror felt by people with loved ones in San Francisco in 1906, when the most devastating earthquake in U.S. history laid waste to the city, collapsing buildings by the hundreds and triggering devastating fires. Photography was in its comparative infancy then, and there was no way for newspapers to run spot news pictures, much less for photographers to transmit them. Consider: When the devastation hit on May 5, 1906, Collier's Magazine sent a telegram to writer Jack London, who lived some 40 miles outside the city, asking him to report on what he saw. He was, in effect, the photographer: the medium through which images reached a waiting public hungering for news.

His report to the magazine, which did not run until much after his visit, is an eerie echo of what now is being written out of New York:

"There is no estimate within hundreds of millions of the actual damage wrought. Not in history has a modern Imperial city been so completely destroyed.

"San Francisco is gone. Nothing remains of it but memories – and a fringe of dwelling-houses on its outskirts..."

Within a year a report by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers would catalog the earthquake's toll, including a death toll of some 3,000. The photographs, especially those by Captain John Stephen Sewell and Frank Soule, would create a riveting chronicle of the devastation. And in looking at those pictures, in the wake of the worst terrorist attack in American history, I was taken aback yet again by what I saw in one image by Soule.

It was a picture of the burned-out shell of San Francisco's city hall, branded in the Army Corps' report as a "monument of poor workmanship, materials and design."

The great cupola of the building was a charred skeletal silo of steel.

I have seen this before, I said to myself.

And so I had.

In Hiroshima. At ground zero.

And a shudder came over me, to think of the horror and death that we rained upon that city, in ultimate retaliation for our first Pearl Harbor. Good Lord, how far we have come, I said to myself. Then thought: And how far will we go?

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at fvanriper@aol.com.

©Peter Morgan - Reuters

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