Listening to the Images
“History,” James Joyce wrote, “is a butcher.”
There may be another quote, a more telling image than the blows of a butcher’s ax, for the devastation that hit New York City on Sept. 11. But that one is hard to match. Great photographs are a lot like great quotes, epic and casual, seizing the total meaning of collective experience through one person’s perspective. We need quotes, verbal and visual, to make the world-shattering event small, or it gets away.
Trying to put those pieces into a journalistic, artistic whole, a group of New York photographers created an exhibit that showed the city on the day that transformed it.
Gilles Peress, a photographer for the New Yorker, was among the organizers who invited anyone--amateur or professional--who had images connected to the World Trade Center disaster to contribute. Now, a scaled-down version of the powerful show, “Here Is New York,” which they assembled has opened at Track 16 Gallery at Santa Monica’s Bergamot Station.
“The minute I read about the exhibit, I knew I wanted to bring it here and called the organizers,” said Pilar Perez, director of Track 16. “A lot of people from New York live in L.A. The planes were coming to L.A. There are a lot of connections that make it important to give people a chance to see this.”
The original show still has people waiting in lines of up to two hours at a storefront in SoHo, including many New Yorkers who continue to search for a larger view of what happened. In New York, about 1,200 images by roughly 800 photographers went up. The Los Angeles version is about one-fourth that size, covering four walls of the 6,000-square-foot gallery, which specializes in connections between politics and culture. An exhibit about Afghanistan by Afghan artists is running concurrently and is “intended to be part of a larger conversation,” Perez said.
Angelenos who attended Saturday’s opening said it offered them an opportunity to form a more personal connection to what friends and relatives in New York endured. Perez said getting the show into place left little time for publicity beyond work with her mailing list. But the 150 or so people who arrived over three hours Saturday evening formed an intently focused group.
Many said they had come to wrestle with a complex sense of distance that came from having a strong tie to New York without having been there on that decisive morning.
Angel Perea is an administrator with the Los Angeles Unified School District whose daughter lives in Manhattan and works not far from the World Trade Center, in the fashion industry.
“After it happened, I called her, but she was quiet,” said Perea, a man in his 50s, with eyes as dark as the darkest streak in his carefully trimmed salt-and-pepper beard. “She didn’t want to talk about it. She saw what happened. She was there. I told her the most important thing is to tell me she’s OK. She said she was, and that was it.”
A photograph showing three or four people who have just jumped from one of the burning towers is the one that most impressed Angel Perea and a number of other viewers. Perea, a “lifelong native of Los Angeles,” said he had always been fascinated by the endurance of people in World War II concentration camps. He seemed to have given these falling people, their movement suspended between life and death, an unusually close study.
“The terror they must have felt to plunge to their deaths,” he said, softly. “I heard about it. I read about it. Now, I saw it. I try to put myself in their minds. But I can’t. Being pushed to the brink. Having to make that choice. Burning or jumping. Thinking of your family. Your children. They had to be conscious. Their arms are spread out. Maybe they think they are going to float. Maybe they think there will be a miracle.”
He gestures to other images among the digitally reproduced color photographs, head tilting thoughtfully to one side: “Look at the shock on that fireman’s face,” he says. “He’s bewildered. He’s numb. He’s trying to do as much as he can. But it isn’t enough. He sees that. He’s still trying to work.” Perea steps closer. He looks as if he were trying to listen to the photograph.
In fact, in the quiet openness of the gallery, it did seem as if the pictures were talking, shouting or crying. One could hear the woman with her mouth open, her hand to her forehead, staring at the crumbling towers. The man sitting on a curb with his hands to his face must have wept audibly.
Clearly, the fireman cradling the woman with the bleeding face is talking to her, to calm or console, and he looks helpless. The woman holding up the photograph of the missing relative--what is she saying to the passerby?
The man getting a tattoo of the burning buildings on his arm, overlaid with a fluttering American flag, must be talking to the tattoo artist, talking as we all do, unburdening ourselves to strangers.
Marchers, holding placards bearing the words “Our Grief Is Not a Cry for War,” link arms, their mouths open. They seem to be trying to make their readable words more forceful, firmer in their response to the butcher. “Please Don’t Hurt Our Muslim Neighbors” reads a sign in another picture. We see it over the shoulder of a man wearing a yarmulke. There are a lot of signs in the pictures. They almost manage the unmanageable dimensions of fear and loss. “I Will Not Be Terrorized,” says one, hanging on the side of a building.
Even the photographs of a child’s drawing of the towers with angel’s wings seem to have the sound of still-innocent child’s mind: a church melody, perhaps, as the twin towers lift off into the paper of eternity. One picture shows the words “They’ll Get Theirs” finger-etched in the all-pervasive gray dust.
The exhibit is subtitled “A Democracy of Photographs” because anyone who took pictures relating to the tragedy was invited to deliver his or her work in person or by e-mail. Part of the idea was that nobody’s names would be affixed to the images. So, we don’t know who gave these pictures their chance to speak. The depersonalized eyes of the photographers bringing what they saw to your eyes is what gives the show much of its power.
One of the ungiven names belongs to Richard Rutkowski. He’s a New York-based cinematographer-photographer with four pictures in the New York show and three here. He came West with his pictures.
“I live right there,” says Rutkowski, 33, pointing to one of the photographs, not his as it happens. It shows a tan-colored apartment building with the large ball of dust and debris from the falling towers unfurling behind it.
He shot 10 rolls of film that day, with the little Leica he has hanging over his shoulder as we speak. “I think people in Los Angeles want to know what happened, and even a lot of New Yorkers think this show is the best way of doing that.” With a touch of cool, professional fervor, he says, “There will never be an opportunity like this to take pictures of a catastrophe in the middle of a great city again.”
I tell him I am one of the Angelenos from New York who seeks a better tie through the pictures to the events in my city of origin. I tell him how they seem to be talking. I tell him the TV never seemed to fully convey the sound of that day. I ask what he heard when the towers came down.
“It sounded like someone was throwing gravel into a jet engine just behind you,” he says. “It sounded like those plastic bubbles that come in packages being popped, by the thousands, just over your ear.”
Then, he pauses.
“I photographed people who had almost died. They barely got out. The thing I noticed was that they didn’t talk. They sat and stared in front of you, while you took pictures, and they said almost nothing.”
“Here Is New York” will be at Track 16 Gallery through Dec. 8. The gallery is at Bergamot Station Arts Center, 2525 Michigan Ave., Building C-1, Santa Monica. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Admission is free.