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'Here is New York' A Staggering Self-Portrait

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

This may be the worst way to look at a photography show.

Hung like laundry, the hundreds of images that currently comprise the 'Here is New York' retrospective of September 11th at the Corcoran Gallery of Art are crammed together into one upstairs gallery. Many of the images are so high above you that you must crane your neck to see them.

Just as you craned your neck to view the unthinkable if you happened to have been in New York the day the world changed just over a year ago.

Too, the Corcoran show, which originated in a New York storefront and which now will travel all over the world, gives new meaning to "visual overload." Just look at all these images. How could one possibly take them in? Suddenly, you are back to that beautiful September morning when memories of radiant blue skies, and of end-of-summer reverie, transformed into images of terror, flame and death. And there is virtually nothing in this show to guide the viewer – no captions, no comforting curatorial artspeak–to soften the edges of this oftentimes gruesome, unrelievedly sad, yet somehow also exhilarating, exhibition.


Yes. Because one year later we are alive to see these pictures.

Indeed, this may be the worst way to look at a photography show.

But, for a project like this it also may be the only way.

I thought, frankly, that after a year of looking at pictures about 9/11, after writing more than a dozen pieces about the tragedy, after reading and reviewing so many books about it, I would be "over-looked," as my Italian friend Nora says.

But I couldn't take my eyes from the Corcoran's walls this week. Seeing the nearly 2,000 images hung with wire and binder clips – and wading though the huge, beautifully printed catalog that houses all of the images to date – I was aware once more of what Philip Brookman, the Corcoran's curator of photography and media arts, told me as this show was making its way to Washington.

This show, Brookman said, is meant to be "a cathartic, rather than a journalistic experience."

Part of what that means is that the images, none larger than 11x14, and all reproduced as digital inkjet prints, are supposed to be viewed as a sum of their parts, not necessarily as individual images. "The significance of the exhibition," notes Michael Shulan, one of the show's organizers, "lies in its content, in its breadth and multiplicity, not in the source or relative value of any one image or group of images..."

Which is why there are no captions or credits on any – any – of the pictures here. Even though people in the business will recognize dozens of images by shooters they know – I certainly did – there are scores more made by non-professionals. "The work of world-famous photographers hangs alongside pictures by cops, firemen businessmen, housewives, school teachers, construction workers and children," Shulan says.

But give the organizers their due: this is not a grab-bag of whatever came through the front door first. They were selective. There is hardly any image here that is not worth looking at. Damn near every print on every wire is a keeper.

In almost every case what strikes you is the immediacy – the overwhelming impact that only photography has in recording the real and the now. It does seem, Shulan notes at one point in the show, as if everyone in New York that day had a camera. But, in fact, that is not true. It's just that, given the chance to bear witness, people in New York – and in Washington at the Pentagon, as well as in Shanksville, Pa – did just that, using their cameras not only to record that they were there at this terrible time, but also, I think, to record and offer visual evidence of one of the worst crimes of modern history. First in a small storefront in SoHo, then in a show that grew and grew and grew some more, hundreds, then thousands, of people submitted work. There is poignancy in the pictures of the ash-covered debris near Ground Zero; there is heartbreak in the walls plastered with pictures of the missing and presumed dead. There is hope in two dust-covered people (volunteers? rescue workers?) sitting on a stoop sharing a chaste kiss as if on a first date. There even is humor in one picture, of a middle aged guy in an ash-covered suit standing on a corner amid chaos, obviously enjoying a long drag on a cigarette.

And of course there is horror. As in one awful image of a woman's severed leg – a side of bloody beef in an open-toed shoe.

The show's full name is 'Here is New York – A Democracy of Photographs.' The organizers chose the name because photography, they said "is democratic by nature," an implication that anyone can do it that I do not support. But they also used the term because photographic images are "infinitely reproducible" and therefore all the more accessible to a mass audience.

What sets this show apart is the fact that it still is growing. Members of the public are invited to contribute their own photographs from the Washington area that are related to the events of 9/11, which will be scanned and added to the photographic archive. Images may be brought in person to the Corcoran Gallery, or may be submitted online.

In addition, under Philip Brookman the Corcoran is offering an important oral history element to 'Here is New York'. Members of the public are invited to offer their own thoughts and recollections, privately and by appointment. A specially built video recording booth sits in one gallery near the exhibition. Interested people may sign up for a recording session and come to the museum to offer their testimony.

In watching some of the recorded interviews – there are screens showing them just beyond the recording booth – I was struck by the honesty and sincerity of those who already have taken part.

I was watching people who struggled with their words and with their emotions, yet who were eloquent just the same. This was a way, surely, for some of these people to find closure.

Coming to this show simply to view the photographs may be a way to find closure too.

It was for me.


'Here is New York – A Democracy of Photographs' Through November 11, Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, 202-639-1700. Hours for this exhibition: Every day 10am-5pm (9pm Thurs.) Admission: $5 adults, $8 families, $3 seniors.

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Frank Van Riper
'Here is New York – A Democracy of Photographs' is hung like so much laundry, but that is the point. The viewer is overwhelmed by images which, taken together, create in each person a collective visual memory of that awful day.

© Frank Van Riper
The juxtaposition of the Corcoran's Jackie Kennedy show, a celebration of style, with the harrowing substance of 'Here is New York' seems more than ironic. Yet both shows serve a purpose and each has had enthusiastic crowds.


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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