As always, it’s an honor to contribute to Scott’s blog.
Photogs. We’re storytellers, right? So, if you will, permit me a story. (It’s occasionally been a saga, and maybe, every once in a while, an opera.)
Like many New York based shooters, I had a bit of a love fest with the World Trade Centers. What was not to like? These twin exclamation points at the southern tip of Manhattan provided a sense of place, majesty, and graphic balance to your snaps, all at once.
In a moment of youthful exuberance, I climbed the antenna on the north tower, and became instantly and forever intoxicated with the notion of obtaining unique, not to be repeated vantage points on one of the most photographed places on earth, New York City.
Get your camera in a different place. I think some photog wrote that once, but he could well be a lunatic.
I’ve climbed to the top of the antenna on the Empire State Building, driven by the notion that I could impart a different spin on the mundane task of changing a light bulb. But do you know via this pic that you are absolutely on the Empire State Building? Is there anything utterly, definably New York in the cityscape? Not really. Not till you get to—you guessed it—the Twin Towers, way far away, but still absolutely recognizable.
And then, they were gone.
The aftermath of 911 was rough for everyone. Like most, I paced, thought, raged, anguished and prayed. I was at home, with the kids, and the irrational photog part of me was screaming inside my head: Get your gear and go.
Truth was, there were already hundreds of shooters down there, documenting events with astonishing courage, tenacity and integrity. I could contribute nothing significant, or different, beyond what they were doing.
Instead, I pondered. I had, at that time, one shooting experience with the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera. I had become intrigued with this balky, cumbersome, historically important camera that lived at that time on the lower east side of NY. I gave myself the assignment to shoot with the camera, and I asked Jenny Ringer, one of the truly amazing principal dancers with the New York City ballet to pose. She remains, I believe, most likely the only ballerina to ever be photographed in this format.
The camera at its’ core is a Polaroid. Make an exposure, 90 seconds later, you have a positive image. But it’s a Polaroid the size of a one car garage. While you direct the picture outside the camera, there are two people physically inside of it, working the guts of it. To make an image, you have to shuffle your subject delicately into a plane of focus that is only half an inch deep, and ask them to stay there, very still, while the camera is spooled up and ready to make a shot.
Not easy to do. But very worth the degree of difficulty. What results after the 90 second chemical processing is a life size, virtually grain-less image of your subject that, when framed, is 4’x9’. When you confront the picture, it’s very akin to actually meeting that person. And the cumbersome, formal nature of the process imparts to the subject a certain stature, dignity, and presence. They literally have to stand for their portrait, much as they did in the old days of flash powder and glass plates.
I shot 246 Giant Polaroids, all done within 5 weeks of 911. I lived at the studio, sleeping in a loft bed over the camera, rarely venturing very far from it, as we took crews from the pit at 2am, 9am, 10pm—in short, whenever they showed up. The result was a traveling show, and a book. These efforts combined with others made by Time Warner, the principal sponsor of the project, and helped raise about $2 million dollars for the relief effort. Then, these behemoth images went into storage, and have been barely viewed for ten years.
Last week, we put them on the floor of the Time Warner Center, with the help of 25 off duty NYC firefighters, all of whom volunteered to come in and help out. The building is amazing. 75,000 people go through it every day, and the show is drawing in additional folks, so once again, during its’ nearly 20 day run, 1.5 million plus people will pass by these images. Related, the company that owns the building, stepped up big time and offered to host the show, which was amazingly generous.
The thing about this edition is that 24 of the original Polaroid portraits have been updated with new portraits, shot in the last 3 months, on D3X cameras, and video interviews shot on D7000. This show is very much about the photo community at work. Nikon is the major sponsor, pitching in with funding and gear. Adorama donated the prints. Johnson & Johnson came on board as a corporate sponsor as well. J&J was very much an unsung hero back in 2001, working behind the scenes, donating equipment, medical supplies, corporate support and funds. They have stepped forward again, a decade later, on behalf of this group of pictures.
(But you know, I kind of regard J&J support as photo related, really. It was my bud, fellow photog, Mark Krajnak, the original K-Man, from Jersey, who appealed to his management to assist us. He got it done.)
We have other assistance, such as JP Morgan Chase, our friends Marea and Marlan Downey, and others, all of whom chipped in with an assemblage of small gifts. But our major corporate sponsors walked. Go figure, but more on that definitely tk.
We found ourselves out in the breeze, so there was nothing to do but keep plunging in. Really, really proud of my small studio.
Ellen Price, the non-stop curator of the collection, who has worked on it largely pro-bono for nine years, marshaled every resource she could find.
Lynn DelMastro, our studio manager, kept things spinning, handling the phone, the invitations, and the myriad of details launching a show of this size in NYC incurs.
Drew, Cali and Grippi built websites and videos.
And Lynda Peckham poured her formidable attention to detail, and her video virtuosity into the preparations. It turned out to be a family operation, as her brother Russell edited the video. Lots of late nights.
And, just when we would get to a point where we thought it was over, and we were out of oxygen, and just had to abandon this, someone would step up with another gift, another reason to keep going. Which we did. The show is on the floor. In a video interview the other day, Chief Jay Jonas of FDNY, called me “a pit bull.” I believe he meant that in the best possible way.
Here’s the reason we kept pushing. At the end of the day, this is simply a collection of pictures of some very good people. Many of them I count as friends. The folks in these pictures saved many people on that day, and in a very real way, they also saved all of us. In a very dark hour, they reminded us all of the decency of the human spirit.
Mike Wernick. He survived, despite being blown out of the building and out onto West St. Mike also worked and survived the ’93 bombing attempt at WTC. His look at the camera reflected what he had been through that day.
I’ve stayed in touch with Mike, and his wife, Nuri. They are amazing people. The pictures I’ve made of them as a couple are among the favorite pictures I’ve ever shot, because they’re pictures of two people who strongly, deeply, love each other.
John Baldassarre. Referred to around the firehouse as “Baldy,” John was the first person to step in front of the Giant Polaroid. In 2001, he was a firefighter with Ladder Nine, Engine 33 on Great Jones St., a house that lost ten men on 911. I walked into the house to ask them to come over to the camera, and I had nothing to show them except a huge picture of a ballerina in a tutu, which I rolled out onto the floor, to, well, predictable commentary. Still, they came to the studio, and the project was started.
Ten years later, John is a lieutenant with FDNY.
Recently, I asked Jenny to come to the house and pose with the guys. She never really knew her picture, rolled out on that firehouse floor, got all this started a decade ago.
Louie. I photographed him in the immediate aftermath of 911. As he stood there in the lights, you could see WTC dust floating off his bunker gear with every move he made, however slight.
Ten years later, he could and should run for mayor of NYC, as I have said many times. We’d all be better for it. His gregarious nature and embracing personality are testaments to the resilience of the human spirit.
Here’s the thing about being a photog, which we sometimes forget when we get too involved counting pixels. When someone agrees to have you make their picture, even a quick snap, there’s an exchange, or the beginnings of a relationship, however cursory or fleeting. The subject is out there, in front of a lens, which is a very vulnerable place to be. Effectively, they give you, at the camera, a gift. It’s up to us as photographers to take care of it.
When someone comes to your studio during a time such as 911, everything ratchets upwards. Their vulnerability. The amount of trust they place in you. Your responsibility to them.
The flash of the light speaks a language beyond simple exposure. You trip the shutter (or, as with the Giant Polaroid, you pull the cap off the lens) and you have made a pact with that person out there on the seamless. You are effectively saying, I will do my best to make this a good photo. I will do my best to try to make sure you don’t regret coming here. And, just as importantly, you are promising to be the good shepherd of your image.
Ten years ago, when someone came to the camera, I made a picture and a promise. This show, ten years on, is part of that promise.
The show is at the Time Warner Center at Columbus Circle in NYC, and is free and open to the public from 10am to 9pm daily, through Sept. 12th. There is more info at FacesOfGroundZero.com
Should anyone care to contribute to the ongoing maintenance and costs of the Giant Polaroids, you can do so by logging onto Artspire.org
The collection is under the auspices of the New York Foundation for the Arts. The Artspire link above is their donation mechanism. All donations are tax deductible, and will go to cover and reimburse the costs of the show and the collection, the transfer of the Giant Polaroids to the 911 Museum, as well as framing, maintenance, staging and transit.
You can see more of Joe’s work at JoeMcNally.com, follow him on Twitter, and find him on Facebook