In the days, weeks, and months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, a colossal clean-up effort took place at Ground Zero, with thousands of first responders clearing up the wreckage of the Twin Towers. Also on the scene with the police officers, firefighters, construction workers, engineers, and volunteers was one man, Joel Meyerowitz, and his trusty large-format camera.
Meyerowitz, an award-winning street photographer and pioneer of color photography, was the only photographer authorized to be at Ground Zero, which was fenced off like a crime scene, and he created thousands of images of the cleanup effort and the people who made it happen. A selection of the photos he took over nine months became a book — “Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive,” published by Phaidon in 2006 — and now 40 of his poignant images are coming to the Parrish Art Museum and will be on view from September 10 to November 7.
“Recognizing that 2021 would be the 20th anniversary, we thought it would be a good idea to take a look at some of these amazing photographs that were made at that period,” Alicia Longwell, chief curator at the Parrish, said. “[They] have their own sort of existence now … It’s been a time of rebuilding, a time of reopening, a time of reassessing — both worldwide and certainly by us as American — about what that day meant.”
The photos in “Aftermath” are a mix of intimate portraits of exhausted workers and epic, almost alien, scenes of the pile, the destruction, and the husks of the towers. Drama suffuses all the photos, which are not only works of art, but works of archive. In the eyes of a construction worker carrying a pipe or a firefighter stopping to rest, one can see that these people knew they were a part of history.
“[They’re] bringing beauty to this decisive moment that is so etched in all our memories,” Longwell noted of the photographs. “… [The Pile] almost looks like a living, breathing monster in some of these images, you could almost attribute anthropomorphic details to the configurations of the twists and turns and contorted steel. So they’re very visceral. They’re very beautiful. They’re very instantaneous. I mean the smoke, the clouds. It’s going to look that way just for a minute. So it retains that decisive moment of when he takes the image.”
On the first day Meyerowitz went down to Ground Zero — he had been in Cape Cod, making photographs, but rushed down to see what was happening — it was with a 35mm slung around his neck. After finagling credentials as a “mayoral photographer,” Meyerowitz was granted unimpeded access to the site and spent months, day and night, chronicling. He used an 8×10 view camera (picture a 19th-century photographer dipping his head behind a large tripod) to create his images. The large-format camera grants incredible clarity and depth, and the images shown in the exhibition come from a set of contact prints — photographs printed on a 1:1 scale from negatives.
“He felt that his business, and his task, and his duty … was to record this for history,” Longwell said. “That was his motivation from the very beginning. He wasn’t thinking about having a front page of the New York Times at the moment or anything like that. He only thought about making a really important document of this. He knew that 20 years on, 50 years on, 100 years on, that people would be looking at this moment and he wanted to preserve it.”
Through a partnership with the Bank of America, the Parrish will be granting first responders and healthcare workers free admission to the museum for the month of September.
“[We] felt it was important to recognize those incredible workers. I think we’re so much more aware of what this kind of response means to the community and the country and the world. So in a way, marking this period of remembrance, looking back, and also obviously to recognize those who still today carry on this important work,” Longwell said.
“Joel Meyerowitz “Aftermath: Images from 9/11” will be on view from Friday, September 10, through Sunday, November 7. The Parrish Art Museum is located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. For more information, visit parrishart.org.