Democracy of Photographs

Photograph No. 1621 is a panoramic view, from a great height and distance, of the twin towers of the World Trade Center poking up through a roiling mass of clouds. In the crystalline sunlight, the towers glow golden against the fleece of the clouds. The receding sky in the left half of the photo is a clear warm blue, as it was that morning. In the nearer right half of the picture, a storm is boiling and night approaches, but the towers appear resolute and assured.

Photograph No. 5140 hangs next to 1621. Here, the south tower is cascading toward the cramped and narrow streets, a huge cloud of dust and debris spreading out and finally arcing downward to follow the tower as it falls. A thick plume still rises from the north tower, and the western facade of a smaller building in the middle distance still reflects the brilliant blue of that morning's sky even as catastrophe descends upon it.

These are but two images in the exhibition "here is new york: a democracy of photographs," organized by FotoFest and on view at Memorial City Mall. Located between Foley's and Lord & Taylor (so you know where to park), the exhibit contains approximately 500 of the more than 7,000 photographs submitted to this year-old archive. The project began on September 12, 2001, when Michael Shulan, a writer and curator, placed a photo (No. 0000) of the WTC in the window of a Soho storefront that he owned, and issued a call for photographs. The exhibit is called a "democracy" because it has taken photographs from everyone and credits no one; the photo you're looking at might have been taken by a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist (about a third are by professionals), or it might have been snapped by a tourist with a disposable camera. The images, which have been digitally scanned, printed as ink jet prints and hung, unframed, on cables using small binder clips, may be purchased for a mere $25. The project has expanded to include a Web site, videos, similar exhibits elsewhere in the United States and in Europe and Asia, and now an 864-page book. If this all begins to smack of the commercial, be assured that all of the net proceeds go to the WTC Fund of the Children's Aid Society; to date, more than $650,000 has been raised.

To say that this is a compelling exhibit is a gross understatement, but then most of these images beggar description. The first photo to stop me cold was No. 1484: Three people tumble through the air away from a wisp of dark smoke lifting from the side of the building. The camera lens was far enough away so that you can't make out details like clothing or gender; these figures have no individuality. In a different context, the photo might be a single print of three successive frames of the same person falling. But this is documentary, a spontaneous reaction to the horror the world is capable of; we are not permitted the reassurances of art here. The camera can't give them individuality, but as we look at this photograph, we can. And when we do, they become all of us (and I don't mean "Americans").

Two other photographs aren't hanging side by side, but they are joined in my memory. In No. 6588, the second plane banks toward the south tower, the moment we all witnessed on our television screens, the moment we all knew this was no accident. In No. 2087, we are west of the tower, about 90 degrees from the previous vantage point, and the plane is milliseconds from impact as thick black smoke spews from the first tower. Together, they are a stark memento of the time that confusion turned to disbelief.

Those two perspectives, separated by seconds and several blocks, get to the heart of the project: its democratic aspirations. The founders -- Alice Rose George, Gilles Peress, Michael Shulan and Charles Traub -- write that the exhibition "suggests that there is wisdom in a collective vision," a collective vision, not one edited by NBC/General Electric or ABC/Disney or CNN/AOL Time Warner. I have seen nothing that gets so close to what it must have been like that morning, that conveys it so honestly and completely. Here are the survivors, ghostly in the pale gray dust that covers them; the rescue/recovery workers, confused in one photo, exhausted in another, grimly determined in a third; the doctors, dressed for the OR, looking for someone to help; the distraught comforting the injured; and, in the aftermath, the cranes like toys against the enormous pile of twisted steel and shattered concrete.

There are many haunting images. No. 7418: in close-up, a small plastic blue-capped vial, in a blue rack, labeled "Tooth"; No. 6532: a single crutch lies on a dust-covered subway platform next to the last car of an abandoned train; No. 1150: a mangled lower right leg (you can make out the alignment of the toes), shrouded in fragments of cloth, lies in the street; No. 1636: from the lower right corner, a befuddled man stumbles out of the darkness into a greenish haze that gives way to a halo of diffused white light; and No. 1351: a tight portrait of a woman, Muslim by her head garb, tears streaming down her face.

"here is new york" is not just about New York (though the title is borrowed from a 1948 essay by E.B. White that is still one of the loveliest valentines to that city) -- there are a few photos of the damage at the Pentagon, and at the Web site you can access a smattering of images from Pennsylvania and Afghanistan. The project is very much about 9/11 and all of its aftermath. But given the carnage and the terrible spectacle (as well as the nature of that city -- no doubt there were scores of tourists at the WTC armed with cameras and video cams at 8:46 that morning), it's not surprising that the majority of these images are of New York.

The building of the World Trade Center and its destruction were both monumental acts of hubris: arrogance to reach above the clouds brought down by arrogance striking at empire in God's name. But there is little hubris in these photographs (except for the picture of "Nuke 'em all!" inscribed in the thick dust -- presumably before anyone even knew who "'em" were). And there was no hubris evidenced in the faces of the visitors with whom I shared this exhibit. More like comprehension, compassion, sympathy, perhaps even empathy. Something, perhaps, to consider as hubris of a different but no less deadly kind stalks the corridors of power.

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John Devine