Through a Lens, Starkly

As photography exhibits of the World Trade Center disaster proliferate, some wonder how much is too much

November 06, 2001|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

NEW YORK - On chic Prince Street in New York's SoHo neighborhood, a 20-minute walk from the World Trade Center site, at least 100 people wait in line to revisit the catastrophe that has consumed them since Sept. 11.

"Here is New York: Images from the Frontline of History," a rotating exhibit devoted to the terrorism attack and its aftermath, offers more of what they've already seen plenty of: nightmarish landscapes of dazed citizens, devastation, paralyzing grief. But somehow, untold images in untold publications are still not enough for those willing to wait half an hour to see this show.

Inside the temporary gallery, cobbled from two empty storefronts, visitors debate the aesthetics of one view of the disaster compared to another. They jot down the numbers of photos they plan to buy as digital copies. "That's a fabulous photograph, isn't it? My God!" says a woman as she eyes a well-cropped image of destruction.

A man from Philadelphia is transfixed by the photograph of a woman in what would ordinarily be a mundane pose. While leaning against a doorway, a cell phone cradled on her shoulder, she gazes at the lower Manhattan skyline. The man sees what she sees: one of the twin towers engulfed in flame and smoke. The juxtaposition of banality and evil drives the horror home in a way more graphic images from the show, subtitled "A Democracy of Photography," cannot. The photo already has appeared in several publications, and the London Times and Vanity Fair have also expressed interest in the image.

"Wow, you're famous. I'll remember you the rest of my life," the man from Philadelphia tells Eric Nederlander, the novice photographer who took the photo of his girlfriend. Nederlander is also a theater producer who, as it happens, is a bit famous.

But for the content of the show, this exchange could be just another set piece in a community known for its edgy vitality and amusing self-absorption. The Woody Allen-esque possibilities only increase when a man, standing outside, shouts into the gallery: "Anything with gaping holes in the chest?" How much does death and destruction go for these days; what kind of a commodity is it, he demands, before drifting away. Gallery visitors shrug and laugh uncomfortably.

Proceeds from photograph sales will benefit the Children's Aid Society World Trade Center relief fund, not gallery managers. But the angry man has tweaked a nerve. Are the exhibitors exploiting or documenting the gruesome attack? And have the visitors, some of whom will visit ground zero when they're finished here, come to bear witness, as many profess, or to gawk?

What lies beneath the desire to display these photos and the need to see them - especially when the media already offers a surfeit of cruel imagery?

The angry man on the street thinks he knows the answer: base curiosity. But at this strange juncture, where an unprecedented mode of violence has been captured by unprecedented numbers of cameras, it's all too simple to assume that the gallery exhibitors and guests' worst instincts are solely to blame for the success of this grim show.

Within moments of September's terrorist attacks, witnesses rushed to record the horror. Since then, a nonstop stream of images has been burned into the national psyche.

Thousands of photographers, amateur and professional, have contributed to the body of work. The SoHo show, the most publicized, is just one of numerous instantly mounted exhibits that chronicle the terrible events, even as they continue to unfold.

In the lobby of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, panoramic views of the destruction perch on twisted metal, to simulate the WTC's grotesque collapse.

At the Municipal Arts Society in midtown Manhattan, "MISSING," an exhibit featuring photos of the impromptu shrines created to pay tribute to the dead, recently opened. The exhibit is accompanied by a continuing slide show in which larger-than-life size slides of more than 800 victims are projected against a backdrop of New York Times obituaries and stories.

Photographer Joe McNally's life-size photos of rescue workers, survivors and relatives are scheduled to appear in a gallery exhibit, Life magazine and a hardcover book. In a Toronto gallery, Harry Benson's photographs of the disaster are on display. In Atlanta, a local gallery is showing the work of a photographer named Alli Royce Soble, who happened to be in New York on Sept. 11.

Staff members at the Municipal Art Society, an organization devoted to New York's "built environment," had to think fast about their institution's response to the tragedy. Deciding what's appropriate and what's inappropriate has made for touchy conversation, says Aimee Molloy, the society's director of exhibits.

There was never any doubt about the need to respond, Molloy says. But instead of being part of the immediate debate among architects and preservationists on how to rebuild at the WTC site, the society decided to concentrate on the creative way the dead were being remembered.

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