The images of the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11 remain the strongest connection Americans have to the events of that tragic day. In the aftermath, one photographer was allowed in at Ground Zero to take pictures for the nation’s historical record. Joel Meyerowitz spent months there, amassing roughly 8,000 images of the destruction and the heroic recovery efforts.
Immediately after the attacks, Mayor Rudy Giuliani closed the site to everyone except emergency personal.
“Like so many citizens in New York City, there was a strong desire to help or be useful in some way,” Meyerowitz said. “As a native New Yorker, I certainly felt that, but it was impossible to do anything useful because the site had already been closed.”
Meyerowtiz went down to Lower Manhattan anyway, standing at the edge of the wreckage, holding up his camera to get a better view of what had happened. He was confronted by a police officer who told him cameras were not allowed and he risked having his equipment taken away.
“At that moment I had one of those life changing epiphanies,” Meyerowitz said. “They can’t do this to us and take away a history, a history that will happen inside there and I thought I could do something about this. I know how to make an archive. I will find a way to get into Ground Zero and make this historical record. And so that began my odyssey.”
After clearing bureaucratic hurdles, Meyerowitz was granted permission to document the site.
“In the beginning, everything was the mass of rubble and the fallen buildings and steel and glass,” Meyerowtiz said. “It had the power of some natural upheaval in the earth’s history, is what it looked like, and so I was photographing the overall scene. And then bit by bit as I worked my way in and was able to stay in, I began to see the personal as well as the overall. And as I made my way through both time and the change of the site, individuals became more important because as the rubble disappeared, the workers who devoted themselves to finding the last remains of every single person who perished there, those people became the subject.”
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As the work progressed, it became a balancing act for Meyerowtiz as an artist, then historian, and always, as a witness taking in the enormity of the scene. Each day brought a different challenge.
“I remember one in particular, a sunny October afternoon,” Meyerowitz said. “The chill of the day and the warmth of the sun. The day was a pristine day: blue skies and white clouds and I was thinking, it is one of those days that feel so good to be alive. I found myself pausing, standing in this graveyard amidst the dead. How can you feel that way? I was caught in this difficult situation of feeling what it is to be myself in the present moment and recognizing the fact I was in this hallowed ground. And I thought to myself: Do I take this picture or not? And I realized, of course I take the picture.”
“The more I understood my role in this, the singularity of my role, the more the burden was on me to be as completely human as I could be and not relegate this to a sterile history or only a personal one,” Meyerowitz said. “It had to be this combination and I hope the work I did serves this dual purpose.”
Meyerowitz is a world renowned photographer, with work in the permanent collections of many of the country’s finest museums like the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. His time at Ground Zero has had an impact on his art. He has been taking photographs for fifty years, but in the ten years since the attacks and his time amidst the wreckage, his art has taken on a new purpose.
“Making these photographs was sort of a submitting to a larger ideal and that was to be of service and useful and to make a record,” Meyerowtiz said. “I think what has happened to me since then, I am now more interested in being useful in my work.”
Meyerowitz’s photographs from Ground Zero have been collected in the book, “Aftermath,” and are now on display in New York at the 92nd Street Y, New York University and the Edwyn Houk Gallery.