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After the Fall

June 7, 2007 By:
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Who would have thought it possible? The photographer who has given us some of the greatest paeans to beauty and relaxation -- to the joys of summer -- as well as a deep sense of place in American life has now given us the greatest tribute to one of the country's most resonant tragedies.

Joel Meyerowitz, who made his name by cataloguing Cape Cod in all its varied states -- on the porches, in the cottages, by the salt marshes and the sea -- took his camera to ground zero immediately after the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center towers, and made an astonishing record of what transpired after the horror. The photos have now been put together in a book called Aftermath, which has been published in an oversized format -- duly equal to the subject and the scope of the photographer's accomplishment -- by the great art publisher Phaidon.

Even though the World Trade Center site had been deemed a crime scene and the press had been prohibited from entering, Meyerowitz, with the help of the Museum of the City of New York and certain accommodating city officials, was permitted access. In fact, according to his publisher, he was the only professional photographer granted unimpeded entry into and around ground zero.

Day and night for nine months, he photographed what came to be known proverbially as "the pile," along with the 800 or so people who worked at the site, dismantling the ruins. He was moved to do the work by the sense that if it were not done, "there would be no history," which was much the same philosophy that inspired the Depression photographers of the 1930s.

"I was taking pictures for everyone who didn't have access to the site," the Bronx-born photographer writes in the introduction, "so I decided to work with a large-format wooden view camera. This camera was impossible to hide, but it enabled me to make images of the fullest description, with a sense of deep space. I wanted to communicate what it felt like to be in there as well as what it looked like: to show the pile's incredible intricacy and visceral power ... I could provide a window for everyone else who wanted to be there, too -- to help, or to grieve, or simply to try to understand what had happened to our city." (The thousands of images, appropriately, are now part of the permanent collection of the Museum of the City of New York.)

Aftermath is not a book you can peruse at your leisure. You must give each page ample time and attention, and expect to be disturbed, to have to look away, to possibly close the cover and come back later -- or not at all (the photographer has also contributed comments, which are scattered throughout the nearly 350-page book, and these take time to assess as well).

There are eery night shots, some so beautiful they take your breath away -- and leave you feeling unsettled, as well they should. The most disturbing elements in many of the photos are the appearance of some of the same intonations you find in Meyerowitz's exquisite Cape Cod shots, especially as the sun sets on ground zero and leaves its mark on the buildings still surrounding the site.

And sprinkled about are surreal shots -- a view of nearby St. Paul's Cemetery, for example, with old gravestones in view and a hunk of the bright silver aluminum blinds from the towers lying on the hard gray ground.

The photos of the workers are particularly striking, as the refuse begins to be whittled away. For example, there's one called "A welder's doodle" that shows a piece of molded metal, which Meyerowitz explains as follows:

"I was standing with a friend watching the work when I noticed an oddly shaped piece of steel in the rubble. I picked up a 10-pound piece of I-beam and saw that the Twin Towers -- antenna included -- and a cross had been burned away from the rest of the beam. Like a whittled bit of wood, or a piece of Outsider Art, this had been made by a welder killing time, a doodle scrawled in steel. I had never seen anything like it before, but over the coming months these creations became a cottage industry, a way of making mementos to give away: crosses, crescents, Jewish stars and other designs burned out of the towers' refuse."

But perhaps the most moving of all the images are those of the mourners who gathered at numerous memorial ceremonies. They came in search of understanding or some sort of answer, or simply to be close to those they loved -- and lost.

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