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Bearing Witness to the Unthinkable

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

Inevitably, books about the September 11th tragedies have made their way to the stores in time for the holidays, each book in its way trying to bear witness.

Some books, like Jay Maisel's beautiful A Tribute, recall the World Trade Center as it was, letting us linger over images of the twin towers made over the years by one masterly shooter.

Others, like Life Magazine's One Nation, try to combine a number of different styles–from gritty photojournalism to Joe McNally's haunting life-sized Polaroid portraits of rescue workers and others-to create a coherent narrative of an incomprehensible crime. Still others-thin quickies bent more on making a buck than on saying anything substantive-look like someone's download of World Trade Center stock photo files, cobbled together to inevitably jarring effect. What little text these books contain too often is breathless, simplistic or plain wrong.

Far and away the two best books so far to reflect the horror and the heroism of September 11th in New York City-from the standpoint of documentary photography, and first rate photojournalism-are New York, September 11 by Magnum Photographers (PowerHouse Books, $29.95) and the similarly titled NewYorkSeptemberElevenTwoThousandOne (de.MO, $35).

Each of these books has a remarkable point of view. Each is vastly different from the other. What weaknesses there may be in one are made up for in the other so that, as I write this with each book open and flanking my computer, I find myself flipping back and forth, in the same way that I watch a fine jazz trio or quartet and clap appreciatively when the musicians trade riffs.

Start with the Magnum book, a collection of work by members of the world-famous 54-year-old photography cooperative, some of whose most illustrious members happened to have been in New York for a monthly staff meeting when disaster struck the twin towers.

In some ways, this book follows the more traditional approach, though in both design and content there is plenty here that is edgy, even startling. The cover pic, of the towers in mid collapse, is by Steve McCurry, one of a series he made from the roof of the building on the north side of Washington Square park where he has his office. McCurry, a world-renowned shooter, had just gotten back from China, and was opening his mail when his assistant's mother telephoned and said, "Look out your window!"

To the extent that it ever can be, the McCurry cover picture is gentler than others we've grown accustomed to: of one tower, then the other, enveloped in an angry ball of flame after the initial impact of their respective guided missile airliners. McCurry's picture is dominated by smoke, not flame, the billowing clouds looking like elegant white dreadlocks as the towers-and all those inside of them-are destroyed.

It is an image of terrible, god-awful beauty.

"You might just have well have told me that my mother or father had been killed in an accident," McCurry writes in spare eloquent text that accompanies his work. "...It was a sorrow of that magnitude."

But before the next dawn McCurry has shaken off his sorrow and walks to ground zero under cover of darkness at 3:30 in the morning. He describes cutting his way through a cyclone fence, ignoring the shouted calls of cops, and hiding his cameras while trying to blend in with a column of national guard troops so he could do his job and document this crime against civilization. Before he and his assistant finally are collared by authorities and escorted away, McCurry makes his now-famous shot of the ravaged, dust and debris-covered lobby of No. 2 World Financial Center, looking as if it just had survived a nuclear explosion.

With the exception of author David Halberstam's workmanlike introduction, the text in this book is by the Magnum shooters themselves. Sometimes they are mere "tick-tocks" of chronological events. Sometimes, as in the case of Gilles Peress, they are not even that. "I don't trust words. I trust pictures," he writes, and then lets his nine images, some of them riveting, some of them only interesting as documentation, speak for him.

Photographer Larry Towell was one of the few Magnum shooters to work in black and white and his photos are some of the best in the book. In one sidewalk shot, a dust-covered, suit-clad young black man nearly fills the frame, his arms akimbo, his stare glazed. The familiar shield on his breast pocket shows him to be a New York City Police detective. In another shot that calls to mind the Chicago street photography of Harry Callahan, Towell captures a young woman, her body clung by tight white pants and a ribbed white sweater, looking off into the distance, her face raked by harsh morning sunlight as she seems to prepare to cross the street. Her whole being is bathed in bright white, while behind her, far in the distance like a looming bad dream, dark clouds of smoke all but obscure the sky in lower Manhattan.

If the Magnum book seems to rely aggressively on the notion that photographs should speak for themselves, NewYorkSeptemberElevenTwoThousandOne gives equal time to the written word, and with tremendous effect.

In addition, taking nothing away from the Magnum team, the editors of this book had the freedom of not having to draw from a frankly limited, albeit greatly talented, pool of photographers. Freelance shooters, including Samantha Appleton and Gary Fabiano; wire service shooters like Richard Drew of the AP and Shannon Stapleton of Reuters, contribute terrific work to this book that holds its own-and at times exceeds-that of their far better known colleagues at Magnum.

"NYSETTO" falls just short of being over-designed, but I find its contemporary look and feel appropriate, the mix of images and words satisfying and clear. [In contrast, I might add, to one lavish coffee table book about firemen in which I have yet to find an accessible list of credits for the many photographers whose work it contained.]

Because the editors of NYSETTO were able to use images from all sources, included here are two that already have become icons: Drew's horrific picture of a soon-to-be-dead victim caught in mid-air falling from one of the towers amid smoke and flame, and Stapleton's image of firemen and rescue workers bringing out the body of Father Mychal (cq) Judge, the beloved NYFD Catholic chaplain, against a wall of dust and ash. [By contrast, the Magnum book features a beautiful picture by David Alan Harvey of Judge's wake, the priest visible in his open coffin.]

While both the Magnum book and NYSETTO feature superb images, NewYorkSeptemberElevenTwoThousandOne simply walks away with the honors when it comes to text. Be it yet another cogent analysis of the festering middle east from the NY Times' Tom Friedman, a brave defense of all our freedoms from author Salman Rushdie, or even a brief soliloquy by comedian Joan Rivers, this is a remarkable cross-section of written experience in the wake of 9/11. [What for example, could Joan Rivers possibly contribute? You'd be surprised. For instance: "Nothing I love will ever be looked at or touched or smelled without a tiny wisp of sadness...that all that is familiar or joyful or even aggravating can disappear in a moment...My humor stays intact, but there is no safe outlet for it. The same joke that makes one friend laugh makes another gasp. 'What are the two rarest things to be found in the Taliban? Happy Women and a beard trimmer.' I hope you are the friend who is laughing."]

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.

©Frank Van Riper
The more conventional collection of 9/11 images, by a talented team of Magnum photographers, showcases world-class photojournalistic talent, with the written story told in the shooters' own words. But the edgier NewYorkSeptemberEleven
manages to twin striking pictures from a wider range of photographers with gripping text from people like Salman Rushdie, Tom Friedman-even Joan Rivers.

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