[ PHAIDON ]
Ten years after documenting the
cleanup of 9/11, Joel
Meyerowitz is still finding clues
in the rubble of the twin towers.
Phaidon Press invited Joel to
reveal the hurdles and the
lasting effects of Aftermath.
A New Face
On the way to the event, the sky went black. The first few drops of rain were heavy. It was only a matter of time before we were running from the rain. Two blocks later the sky opened up. I ducked into a doorway as sheets of rain rippled across the street. People were abandoning umbrellas, kicking off their high heels and running for shelter. There had not been rain this heavy in months.
Waiting inside a locked doorway, very grateful to be dry, two guys wandered into the alcove. From their breath, it was clear they spent the afternoon in a flood of a different sort. Random drunk people in New York can be fun. Stranded on our dry spot of earth, we chatted for a few minutes about the weather, the mayor, and then the weather again. One of them seemed convinced this was the sign of the apocalypse, but considering the condition of Ground Zero these days, I’d say things are looking up, not down.
Flip Flop Meetings
Walking into the event, I must have looked like a drown rat. The cuffs on my pants were rolled up to my knees and my flip flops were soaked. The security asked “Can I help you?” as if I must have walked into the wrong building. I said very politely, “Yes you can, the name is Marelli.” Looking down the RSVP list he said, “Oh, yes. Right this way.” Puddle hopping in flip flops is much more fun than wearing shoes. It is another reason why flip flops are becoming my professional shoe of choice. Beyond the shock that anyone would show up to an event in flip flops, I have found that the most influential people in my life do not wear shoes. From Master Builder Mark Ellison, to Zen Master Fujin Butsudo, Guru Dattatreya Siva Baba, and Master Artist Myron Barnstone, they all wear sandals. I am not sure there is a connection, but its possible. Happy to be inside, I was looking forward to drying out and hearing Joel speak about the re-release of his book Aftermath by Phaidon Press.
Inside the 9/11 Memorial Museum was a mixed crowd of young photographers, suits, and wet city-goers. Joel was dressed in a black suit, not carrying a bag or a camera. There was twenty minutes for people to grab a drink or snack. Stacks of Aftermath were on display highlighting the new cover, which fortunately Joel explained later on.
Everyone Said “No”
Joel Meyerowitz has been a professional photographer in New York City since the 1960′s. When a prominent photographer asks a city to create a body of work, usually the answer comes in two parts. “Yes, we would like to do it,” and “But how can we afford you?” After 9/11, things were different for Joel. He was fully established, totally respected, but denied access to ground zero over and over again. Rudy Giuliani refused to have a photographer roaming around the broken heart of downtown Manhattan. In an effort to wedge his foot in the door, Joel tried every type of appeal. He pointed out that he was not a journalist. None of the images would be opportunistic or exploit the sensitive nature of the site. He was a New Yorker, and who better to capture the efforts of thousands of people, who worked around the clock to search for survivors and closure. Then he even explained the significance for posterity. It was important that people remember the tragic fall of the Twin Towers, but also understand the monumental effort that went into restoring normalcy to New Yorkers. Nothing worked. As far as New York City was concerned, no one would be allowed inside the clean up. There was no reason under the sun that would change the mayor’s mind. This is an important lesson for younger photographers, “No, is just part of the process, they even say no to the big guys, but it can be overcome.”
Prior to shooting Aftermath, Joel was working on a long term project on New York Parks. The park project was facilitated by New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe. Joel, a few years older than Adrian, had known the Commissioner since he was a child. The clock at Ground Zero was ticking. Every day the clean up continued, Joel was loosing the chance to document the transformation. A “Before and After” series only works if there is a starting point and his was slowly slipping away.
One day, Joel called Adrian and told him about the denial of access. He wanted to know if Adrian had any ideas. Indeed, Adrian said there were badges that the Parks Department was issued to access the site. He was going to make up one for Joel and thought it should work. When Joel retold the story he added that, “New York City printed the passes on construction paper making them easy to replicate.” He set to work, making a number of passes for himself in different colors as backups. He grabbed his camera and headed down to the site. Much to his surprise the pass worked. He was in! But…he kept getting thrown out. Fortunately the site was so large, he would circle around to a different entrance and re-enter the site. Finally he had access to Ground Zero.
Why would a publisher release the same book with a different cover? The original cover shows the remaining steel of the towers jutting out of the ground. It looks like a graveyard. In contrast, the new cover has one man, in the darkness with a bandage covering the stitches on his face. A body of work is a living and breathing entity. They have lives, stories, and evolutions that exist beyond their creators. Ten years later, Aftermath has grown new roots. During the Q & A, I asked Joel, “How did the work affect you, aside from the health hazards which you discussed earlier?” He said, “It changed my life.” A story that started with the destruction of massive buildings, became a collection of narratives about individuals who worked to repair the site.
It seemed fit the book changed it’s jacket.
Joel is not a war photographer and makes no pretense about his various projects. Aftermath would not have been possible without the people inside of Ground Zero. He went on to explain that the man on the cover was not easy to find. When Phaidon approached Joel with the idea of changing the cover, there was a big internet campaign to find the man in the image. He was an iron worker from Washington DC, who drove to New York on 9/11. While he was cutting some steel, his torch set hit a box of munitions. The bullet casings exploded, sending metal flying at his face. The medics gave him five stitches before he went back to work. Joel caught this moment on film. This was the type of dedication that defined the clean up effort. Hundred of people set their lives on hold to help out.
Later in Joel’s talk another man asked a question about the role photographers might play “…As the country is affected by other hardships like the tornados in the Mid-West or the flooding of Hurricane Katrina?” Before he even answered the question, Joel walked out and gave the man a hug. There was not a dry eye in the crowd. Joel introduced the mystery man as Charlie Vitchers, the Bovis Site Superintendent who over saw the clean up. Everyday Charlie would meet with the trades (the leaders of every team from police to steel workers) to layout the day. There is a great double page fold out that shows Charlie in their morning meeting with over forty people. Throughout the course of Joel’s project, he said none of it would have been possible without Charlie.
Back at the podium, Joel asked if everyone would bare with him while he found the picture of Charlie and his teams. He wanted us all to get a sense of how monumental Charlie’s role was in day to day life inside of Ground Zero.
The final story that Joel shared with us was his reasons for making the project. These were all of the reasons that Rudy Giuliani ignored. The project was not done for profit, it was not done for notoriety, it operated at a loss. The purpose was for people to understand the work that went into sorting out the pieces of a terrible event. People lived in Ground Zero for days on end, working constantly and napping occasionally. Joel felt it was necessary to do a project bigger than his own interests. He wanted to make a body of work that will give future generations a window into the past. He knew from the first request that nothing would be easy. And even during the work, he had his doubts that it would come together. When the police finally pulled out, it was unclear whether he would be able to continue. The NY Arson and Explosion Squad were Joel’s saviors. They had kept a close eye on him everyday. They cleared paths for him to work literally and bureaucratically, so if they were leaving what was he going to do? They marched him over to police headquarters and made him a new badge that said “Mayoral Photographer.” It was official, he was finally allowed to complete the work with no more obstacles.
To Young Photographers…
Whether you are young in years or young in spirit, I can’t encourage you enough to go to events and meet photographers. Not everyone will talk to you, but for every ten closed doors, there will be one open. Hearing Joel, in his own words, express his gratitude for the people who gave their time to the clean up was incredible. We can only hope the efforts surrounding projects are genuine, selfless, and unapologetically sincere. Its not everyday you hear a notable photographer say,”I am setting out to complete a body or work, I don’t care if it makes a penny or a million dollars, it has to be done.” I found the evening personally encouraging and uplifting, in spite of the dark conditions that brought the project to life.
When the video cameras stopped rolling, Joel hung out to answer questions and sign books. I had a chance to thank Charlie Vitchers for his work and contribution. We chatted about construction for a while too. In the last few years, I worked on two Bovis projects and Charlie and I knew some of the same guys. Having worked in construction, I always felt like builders were under recognized. Architects usually steal the spot light, but without builders, we would all be sleeping on the side walks and downtown Manhattan would be a pile of twisted steel. It was about time that the construction crews were in front of the lens.
The night ended quietly. It had stopped raining. The caterers packed up the glasses and Joel said his good nights. He was off to a project in Europe for a few months. Charlie and I said goodbye and the Phaidon crew made sure everything closed smoothly. We all slipped out, headed our separate ways. New York is a strange place. At times it feels like an anonymous blur, while other times its like a family reunion. No matter which direction the city takes you, there will be people along the way who make it feel like home.
I would especially like to thank the Phaidon team of Liz Thompson, Peter Tittiger, Richard Gregg, Builder Charlie Vitchers, and Joel Meyerowitz for their time and generosity.
To see more of Joel Meyerowitz’s work visit his site below: