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Van Riper    Frank Van Riper on Photography

Healing Through Art and Memory

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

The old doctor, having lived for years under enemy occupation and knowing the worst was to come, gave this advice to the young man who had seen his comrades die violently:

"When loved ones die, you have to live on their behalf. See things through their eyes. Remember how they used to say things, and use those words oneself. Be thankful that you can do things that they cannot, and also feel the sadness of it. This is how I live without Pelagia's mother. I have no interest in flowers, but for her I will look at a rock-rose or a lily. For her I eat aubergines because she loved them. For your boys you should make music and enjoy yourself, doing it for them ..."

So Dr. Iannis advised Captain Corelli in Louis de Bernieres's novel Corelli's Mandolin. And so New York Mayor Giuliani in effect advised us in the wake of the infamous terror we all have endured. It takes a conscious effort – and not a little courage – to return to normal, and who knows what normal really is? But every small return, every move toward routine, is a step toward healing.

Art at its best reflects life. And art in the wake of September 11th can help each of us deal with grief, anger, survivor guilt and, of course, fear. Art also can help us remember those who died – and in some cases help the ones they left behind.

The Edward Carter Gallery in Manhattan, for example – its SoHo location not very far from ground zero – will open an unusual and continuing photography exhibition October 25th to "celebrate America and the enduring spirit of her people." A similar show will open in November at the Edward Carter Gallery in Lewes, Delaware. The SoHo show has no ending date and will be updated and expanded as new works come in and as earlier works are sold.

"America the Beautiful" will draw not only on the work of photographers who have shown in the galleries, but also on that of amateur and semi-professional photographers nationwide – including one prominent amateur whose grace under pressure these past awful weeks has drawn praise from everywhere. In an interview Ted Carter said he expected to have at least one image from mayor and amateur photographer Rudy Giuliani hanging on his walls to help support the relief effort.

"He did this for us when we opened," Carter said, "and we donated the proceeds to start a darkroom for the Alternative High School in SoHo." Carter said he already has gotten assurances from the mayor's office that a Giuliani pic will be offered for sale, the proceeds from which will benefit the September 11th Fund.

At times like these the strong connection between art and life can help us cope, I believe, because it insinuates a comforting layer of expression between a horrific experience and our memory of it.

Thus the photographic images in the "American the Beautiful" shows will not be of the rubble and pain at ground zero, but of things that capture the spirit of the nation and its people. Helping to remember who we are so we can better honor those who died. This is what is meant by the healing power of art.

Washington sculptor Foon Sham, for example, working on a monumental multi-layered wood sculpture at the time of the tragedies, decided he would modify his commission to make the work even larger – to a total of 110 layers, one for each story of the Trade Center towers. As my wife and I admired the delicate maquette of the sculpture recently, and as Foon wrapped up a day's work on-site, it was clear that the finished work would be more than two organic shapes intertwined. It will become a cenotaph – a memorial, usually open to the sky, to those who have died and who are buried elsewhere.

Sometimes, memorials can be unexpected, but no less moving, and therefore just as helpful in letting us cope. I have known photographer Steve Gottlieb since the 1980s, after he chucked a career as a Washington lawyer and went full-time into photography. I remember some 10 years ago poring over the dummy of his proposed book American Icons, in which Steve traveled the country photographing images that would resonate with his fellow citizens. Some of the images were set-ups – an aerial view of a close play at home plate, an affectionate takeoff on Norman Rockwell's classic painting of a Thanksgiving dinner (with Gottlieb himself peering out from the bottom right corner of the picture).

If some of these staged shots appear, well, staged, his journalistic and documentary images are wonderful, and the fortuitous timing of this just-released book may give many a way to re-connect with the (literal) apple pie imagery of America at a time we all can use it.

Still, the most remarkable unplanned photograph I have seen since the tragedies is the one reproduced here, by amateur photographer C. David Barnes of Sparta, N.J.

Last May, Barnes, 57, was visiting Liberty Park in Jersey City, across from the tip of Manhattan, when he "noticed that the 13 flags at the pavilion were flying at half-mast on honor of a Jersey City firefighter who had been killed in service the week prior." [The firefighter was Captain Al Tirado, killed in a building collapse May 9th.]

Barnes made a wide-angle shot of the flags against a cloud-dappled blue sky, using a Canon Elan camera and Kodacolor Gold 100 film. "I believe I was using manual and set the aperture at f.11 and shutter at 1/250 to stop the flags in a stiff wind."

"Work and other priorities distracted me for several months," Barnes told me in an e-mail. "I had the film developed last week, and was anxious to see the result. I wasn't prepared for the emotional impact of this image. It stands as a tribute far greater than my original perception."

It does indeed. With the intact World Trade Center visible in the background, the lowered flags provide a poignant counterpoint that is almost too painful to bear. [In fact I had Barnes scan and transmit the negative strip on which the image appeared, to satisfy myself that this was not an after-the-fact manipulation.]

Barnes, a technology specialist, said he would like to share any profit from sales of the photo with the families of the firefighters killed in the Trade Center collapse.

For information on the "America the Beautiful" show at the Edward Carter Gallery, and for submission guidelines, go to http://www.edwardcartergalleries.com/.

American Icons, by Steve Gottlieb (180pp, 170 color photos, 11 b/w) Roberts Rinehart publishers, $40.

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.

© 2001 C. David Barnes. All Rights Reserved
Amateur photographer Dave Barnes had no way of knowing that this image, made last May when flags were lowered at Liberty Park for a fallen New Jersey firefighter, would also be a poignant epitaph for the World Trade Center and its thousands of victims.

Frank Van Riper
In wake of tragedies, noted Washington sculptor Foon Sham decided to enlarge this monumental sculpture to 110 layers--one for each story of the World Trade Center towers.

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