In mid-September, the Museum of the City of New York and the Mayor’s office granted the photographer Joel Meyerowitz permission to document the recovery, reclamation, demolition, and excavation work underway at the World Trade Center site. He is the only photographer to have been granted unimpeded and unconditional access to the site.
Meyerowitz has spent the better part of the last eight months there, wandering through the sixteen-acre site to photograph the workers, visitors, debris, buildings, and equipment. To date he has taken over six thousand color photographs.
Q: Describe, briefly, your career trajectory, how you arrived at this moment.
Meyerowitz: I starting photographing in the street, in the spirit of Robert Frank, and my concerns were about human nature, the human comedy, street life, the American scene. The early work was socially motivated, or comically socially motivated. And then I found myself later in my working life being more interested art for art’s sake, especially issues involving color photography.
And periodically I’ve yearned for connection and commitment to something of social usefulness. But it doesn’t always come up — other things catch my attention. But six or seven years ago I made a film about my father, who had Alzheimer’s, and I felt a return to a kind of social consciousness and I was wondering what’s next? What else can I seize upon that would be useful in that way?
And then the World Trade Center attacks occurred and probably like all of us in this room, either here in the city or outside of it, we felt the need to be helpful or participate or react to it in some way. When I came back to New York — I was on Cape Cod — I immediately went down to see what I could see at the site and something happened to me, one of those moments that changes one’s life.
Q: In Creating a Sense of Place you say, “Every artist’s growing process involves giving up something to get something else.” What have you given up and what has been gained with the World Trade Center archive project?
Meyerowitz: In September I was set to do a photography book on Tuscany, all about the bounty of life, the Italians… and then 9/11 happened. Suddenly the light was out of the world, and this Tuscany project seemed like cotton candy. So I gave up the project for the time being. I came back to New York, and I gave up my complacency and sense of artistic entitlement. Now I feel that I am working on behalf of many people.
Q: How has working at the site affected you?
Meyerowitz: My offer to the Museum of the City of New York was that I would work until there was a grassy park. I would work until the end to see what this impact looked like on downtown and the periphery, how the site managed to heal itself over time and become part of the fabric of the city again. But it certainly has become more than that to me. The people who are down there, with their devotion and with all the salvation going on — because that is what the workers are doing, they are salvaging for bodies and looking for the black box, and they are looking for the Rodin — I mean, they are looking for everything — there is a kind of attentiveness to human loss that has made it a spiritual zone. Every day I experience a welling up inside. Not just because of the tragedy but because I am entering this privileged space, this Forbidden City, which is locked off to everybody. And I walk past all the points on the trail that I have made for myself because I have gone around this site hundreds of times, in and out and around — this is only four square blocks — and though the space is small, there is just so much damage. It’s endless, and constantly changing. You never forget that you are in a vast cemetery, and the feeling that there are souls there.
One day I came down in the afternoon and I met some detectives, and they said, “Oh, you missed something…. We were kneeling and ….” It turns out that eight of them were kneeling in one area and they were scraping away — not digging, because it was a sensitive area — and they knew they were going to find a bunch of bodies. They were scrapping away and suddenly they were enveloped in a cloud of Monarch butterflies. “They must have been migrating south, there must have been fifty or more butterflies flitting around our heads,” the detectives said to me. “You should have been here,” the detectives said. I should have been there.
Q: How did you get the credentials to be there every day?
Meyerowitz: A number of years ago I wrote a history book on street photography called Bystander: a History of Street Photography, and I spent many years in archives all over the world and I saw what archives really looked like. I was very attracted to the Farm Security Administration (FSA) archive at the National Library of Congress and the archives of the Museum of the City of New York and in Paris. And so, after my first visit to Ground Zero, I thought, “I am going to make an archive,” and I called up the director of the Museum of the City of New York to offer him this archive in exchange for a letter that would allow me to get in the site. His letter and a lot of push on my part allowed me to get a pass from the city. It took me five days to figure out whom to get a pass from.
Q: And why only you?
Meyerowitz: I wanted to take in a corps of young and experienced photographers to be a miniature FSA. I studied the form of the FSA, a document written by Roy Stryker which described, for all the photographers — Walker Even, Dorothea Lange, etc. — how to see the Depression in America. And I figured out what I thought were the basic steps: how to see what happened in that sixteen-acre zone. But the city would not agree to any kind of group effort, they didn’t even agree to my being in there, so I often had to sneak in, fight my way in, fake my way in. Despite my credentials, people didn’t always understand. Finally, I made friends with a small corps of detectives who were working there. When I’d show the letter to most of the cops on the beat they’d just look right through it. It didn’t exist. “No photographs, buddy, I don’t care what it says… bye” — over and over again. The detectives saved me. They would come and get me day after day. I’d call from my cell phone, “I need help getting in!”
Q: Where do your moral and aesthetic concerns meet or conflict?
Meyerowitz: Any time there is a man-made disaster or a war, you have to ask yourself: How do I approach this? How do I edit? Do I edit nature, the sun and beautiful mist? Can such beauty exist alongside the destruction? Do I say nature and natural beauty are careless, nature doesn’t know what is going on? I have taken pictures of color and light, often they are beautiful to behold and they reflect the passage of time — and work to erase the horror. So, I take a romantic point of view, that nature is a force to reckon with — just as man is.
I try to take pictures that make sense photographically, that make sense visually as art. I don’t shoot evidence exclusively. I don’t copy. But visual evidence is important to record. The stuff in the background is historically important and it feeds you some of the feel of the place. I’ve tried to keep that in mind as I make these photographs. So hand-lettering on a sign, for example, or the fact that the American flag is printed on plastic or covered with a plastic sheet matters — and will matter more in the future. What the trucks look like, what the helmets look like, all the gear — everything will be useful fifty years from now. So, it’s been an education for me to try and function as a historian as well as a photographer and to be socially functional. When I was going through the work in the FSA for the best photographs for a book I was doing, among the 200,000 pictures I looked at many were evidentiary pictures — they didn’t really make sense photographically. They weren’t what one would call art. But every once in a while there would be a photograph of astonishing beauty, with great photographic intelligence at work, and I would thrill to these because they were both evidence and they had become art as well. So I’ve had this in my mind: How do I stay in touch with the photographic enterprise and make works that were serious or significant and still describe the environment, the whole environment? How do I work as a responsible historian and artist?
Q: You mentioned that the workers often direct you to something worth photographing. Do you feel that they are, in essence, the corps, assisting with looking and framing what they see before them?
Meyerowitz: People are generous, they tell me things and where to go. People always share information, and information moves around the zone. They see, and I take.
Q: Describe the different vantage points — did you take shots from the point of view of the crane operator or canteen workers, from the top of debris, from truck drivers?
Meyerowitz: Mostly I’m at ground level, or in some of the building sometimes on crane’s treads — six feet — but I didn’t climb a crane.
I walk along childishly — I’m always saying to myself, “Oh look at that! Look at that!” I talk to myself a lot, I’m always pointing out to myself that I should stay alert and attentive because life is throwing these things at me.
Q: How have the limitations of manpower — of not having a corps, extra eyes and hands like the FSA, for example — liberated or limited you aesthetically? How does it influence the equipment you use?
Meyerowitz: I had to give up the 8 × 10 early on. It was too heavy. I had to walk in from Canal Street and then miles around the site and around and around. I could only carry twelve sheets of film. So I switched to a 4 × 5 that allows me to take in fifty sheets. But I also carry a 6- x 7-cm camera and a 35-mm Leica. I shoot everything on color film. I use each camera for a different task: the 35-mm is great for the momentary things, flutters of activity when there is too little time for gestural observation. The medium format can capture the gestural and things that are more static, there is good description. I would have worked with the view camera, if I was able to bring in assistants or a corps, and I would have assigned different tasks to each photographer. A specific task and a random one.
Q: Do you photograph the borders around the area, too — the empty buildings, businesses, pedestrians, neighbors — or do you stick to the four blocks?
Meyerowitz: My original plan focused on the entire area of lower Manhattan: Broadway to three to four blocks below Liberty and Chambers Streets and over to the river. The zone that was affected by the collapse — the core sixteen acres — I would walk, zigzagging the perimeter and then go into the corners and work my way back. In those areas, in the side streets, there were soldiers or troopers with nothing to do and they would see me and tell me to leave. In the center I had fewer problems. It was the guys with nothing to do who would throw me out. I remember having an argument with a lieutenant from the National Guard, nose-to-nose yelling. One ends up going to places that are easier to access. My work ends up being shaped by the resistance I encounter.