The eyes of Ground Zero
Photographer captures priceless history
"Aftermath: Images from Ground Zero" opens Saturday and runs through June 20 at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1-5 p.m. Sunday. The PFAC is located at 101 Museum Drive, Newport News, within Mariners' Museum Park. Admission is $5 adults, $3 children 4-15. For more info, visit the center's Web site at pfac-va.org or call 596-8175.
"A Conversation with Joel Meyerowitz" will be held 2-3 p.m. Sunday, April 4, at Hampton Roads Academy in Newport News. Admission is free. The school is located on Oyster Point Road near its intersection with Interstate 64. Call the PFAC at 596-8175 for more info.
BY MARK ST. JOHN ERICKSON
March 28, 2004
Joel Meyerowitz wasn't the only New Yorker who wanted to help after the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center collapsed and crashed to the ground.
And he wasn't the only photographer who tried to get past the strict police barricades - and the official "no pictures" decree - in order to document the epic scene of tragedy and pain playing out in the smoldering dust of Ground Zero.
Yet armed with persistence, a letter from the Museum of the City of New York and - in the end - the help of the police themselves, this award-winning shooter eventually gained such extraordinary access that his clean-shaven head and boxy, large-format camera became a familiar sight in the gaping ruins. When the last shovel of debris was cleared nearly nine months later, Meyerowitz had logged hundreds of trips past the gates into the center of "the pile," where he assembled an archival record of some 8,500 color photographs.
Since that time, some 3.5 million people have stood before the best of his pictures, which have been exhibited around the world by the State Department. Thousands more are expected to see them in Hampton Roads, where "Aftermath: Images of Ground Zero" opens this weekend at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center.
What they'll find is a collection of sights that ranges from the monumental to the intimate - and which reflects both the catastrophe's immense scope and the photographer's probing eye. They'll also encounter a moment in history whose meaning - more than 21/2 years after the fact - is still in the process of being digested.
"This event was so huge - and it came as such a shock. Most people remember what they were doing when it happened. They remember the images of the planes crashing into the buildings," says curator Diana Blanchard-Gross, who works with the PFAC. "But these images show us what was left on the ground afterwards. They show us the physical impact of the attack. And that intimate, up-close view helps us to grasp the enormity of what took place at Ground Zero."
Such stirring images might not have been saved without Meyerowitz's driving sense of historical urgency.
On his first visit to the site, he was more than five blocks away when a police officer tapped him on the shoulder and ordered him to put his camera away. That rebuke turned out to be only the first of many obstacles he would have to overcome, and it told him almost instantly what he could do - and then had to do - in order to help.
"To me, no photographs meant no history," Meyerowitz recalls, in a statement accompanying the exhibition. "I decided at that moment that I would find my way into the 'Zone' and make an archive for the city of New York..."
Meyerowitz's decision may have been easy.
But making it happen was not.
Initially, he received little help from the mayor's office, which had no interest in withdrawing its original ban on pictures. He tangled repeatedly with municipal officials at the scene, where they threw him out whenever they caught him working in what he began to refer to as "the Forbidden City."
Even his official commission from the Museum of the City of New York, which had agreed to house the archive of pictures, failed more often than it provided protection. Yet almost every time he was forced to leave, Meyerowitz would find a way to slip back in through another entrance.
"Each time I pass through the gates of Ground Zero - the Forbidden City - I feel it is a privilege," he would later write.
"To be part of the effort to reclaim and renew has, in spite of the deep sadness attached to it, been an uplifting experience. Alone in there as the resident 'eye,' I, too, have become part of the band of men and women who came to heal the wound."
In the end, it was that close-knit tribe of firemen, policemen and construction workers who labored in the pile that gave Meyerowitz the access he needed to take his pictures.
Many of them, including the Arson and Explosion Squad of the NYPD, became important allies in the effort, pointing out breathtaking scenes of pathos and destruction in addition to making sure that the photographer eluded any would-be bouncers.
"These guys were my protectors. They kept me on the site when everybody else was trying to throw me out," Meyerowitz told PBS's "Frontline" documentary series in late 2002. "They understood the project."
What Meyerowitz captured in return was a huge collection of images that ranges from the unexpectedly intimate to the monumental.
On Nov. 15, 2001, for example, he stopped and began recording the scene in a dust-covered day care center, where the fleeing children had left a quartet of toy cars on the floor. Only the week before, he'd stepped back and opened his lens on a much larger, epic-sized landscape, this time catching a band of firemen lost in the smoke and debris as a trio of giant excavators clawed away at the wreckage.
"I see two different kinds of qualities that will draw people in," Blanchard-Gross says, describing the exhibition. "This is a photojournalist's record of a historic event. It's also a collection of pictures with tremendous artistic impact. These are very powerful photos in both senses - and they give me chills."
Sheer scale plays an important role in the exhibit's effect on its viewers. Most of the pictures measure at least 30-by-40 inches in size - and one especially panoramic shot logs in at 8 feet tall and 22 feet wide.
Meyerowitz says that he needed such size in order to give people the chance to experience what he saw at Ground Zero.
He wanted them to feel immersed in the overwhelming expanse and emotion of the site, to imagine that they were standing in the midst of it all rather than merely looking at a picture.
"Anything that large will really engulf you. So the impact is going to be very meditative and very powerful at the same time," Blanchard-Gross says.
"People are going to be