The scale of the World Trade Center was always hard to comprehend, and never more so than on September 11, 2001. The true dimensions of the site were often hidden from view by the thicket of other skyscrapers at the tip of lower western Manhattan. You could be walking only a few blocks away from the Towers and forget they were there, only to turn a corner and step back agog. It was always hard to believe buildings that size could share space on this island with human beings; indeed, looking down from the Observation Deck, people in the streets below ceased to exist except through high-powered lenses.
The establishing shot that informed audiences everywhere “We are now in New York City” in countless post-1972 movies, the World Trade Center was not, like so many other beloved architectural icons, a single building. As such, it was hard to take into one’s heart. The twin colossi rising to an Olympian height of 110 stories, each floor the area of a football field, were only the most visible symbols of a vast office complex too subterranean and intestinal for complete visual consumption. The mammoth height and girth of the Towers seemed designed to cow, even humiliate visitors. Built with public funds, their public lobbies were huge and featureless squares handling thousands of visitors daily with the charmless efficiency of a sports stadium parking lot.
A sense of the sublime – of beauty and terror – permeates lower Manhattan. The kicker to the thrill of competing for riches and power in this arena, against the superhuman skyline of Gotham, is the annihilating thought that you don’t matter, that the city’s relentless energy dwarfs your efforts to organize it, that if you suddenly disappeared you wouldn’t be missed. More than any other city, New York provokes those sensations. The sublime is what attracts people to and scares them about the place; and the World Trade Center offered one of the most sublime views on earth.
It was the science fiction scale of the towers that for many delayed serious understanding of the attacks during the morning on September 11. The first television images, illustrating a report that an airplane had crashed into Tower One at the World Trade Center, showed a blackened crack and wisps of smoke issuing from upper floors. Cameras had been set up miles away so that the top of the structure would fit the frame. The photographic distance from the buildings, and the medium lenses used, distorted the gravity of the fire. The Towers had in effect been shrunk to accommodate the format. Only with a telephoto lens, or after some quick multiplication of the data coming through the screen—a small black crack at the top of a building the size of the World Trade Center actually meant a huge three-floors wide sixty-foot gash—was the impending catastrophe apparent. Then the second plane struck.
The panic that erupted in the mind with the realization that the country was under attack – something that had not happened on the U.S. mainland since the War of 1812 – was coupled with television images of flames engulfing the tops of the Towers. Their collapse was most challenging of all to any rational perspective. Constructed side-by-side, girder-by-girder, over six years, they came thundering down in less than thirty seconds. Stunned disbelief at the magnitude of this improbability, a shockwave that spread around the world that day and echoed for weeks afterward, has dissipated. But nausea can return in a flash. If it was hard to believe the Towers could exist when they did, it is even harder now that they erased in puffs of smoke along with three thousand human beings.
Kevin Bubriski was two hundred miles away at home in Vermont on September 11. Like the rest of the country, he monitored developments on television and in newspapers. The relentless stream of images and information pumped out by the media in the immediate aftermath was a welcome form of emergency aid. While volunteers dug amid mountains of rubble at Ground Zero and police traced the whereabouts of the missing, photographers recorded these struggles as well as reactions to the crisis around the city. Amateurs and professionals alike felt compelled to take pictures. History was taking shape everywhere you looked.
Two weeks after the disaster, Bubriski and a friend from Japan visited New York. They arrived as the city was recovering from the initial chaos and distress. Hope had faded that any more survivors would be found. Bubriski did not have the special permit required to carry a camera around the site. But seeing people still in a daze, he began to photograph the crowds spontaneously gathering near the corner of Fulton St. and Broadway, a few blocks from the ruins of the World Trade Center.
It is impossible to know why so many decided to make this trip – or pilgrimage, as Bubriski calls it – except to guess that their motives were probably a confusion of the noble and the impure. Photographers are poor mind readers, however closely the lens searches the face. Some of the figures in Bubriski’s portraits no doubt were already in the area for work; others seem to have detoured from routine and headed downtown out of natural curiosity—to see what could be seen—or perhaps to rubber-neck at the ultimate train wreck. More than a few must-have known someone killed or missing. But many more likely had no personal connection to the victims or their families.
Bubriski records the motley nature of these crowds to which by definition he, too, belongs. At the same time, his pictures reflect, literally and figuratively, the events of September 11. The violence of that day is treated not by focusing on twisted metal, ripped flags, or body parts, but by looking at the faces of anonymous mourners. He is looking at people looking, with somber incredulity, at a monstrous crime. He has wielded his camera in the same way that Perseus did the mirrored shield – given to him by Athena – to slay Medusa. The gorgon turned to stone anyone who met its gaze; staring straight into its eyes meant certain death. That Bubriski’s indirect glance was also a necessity—by the time he arrived at Ground Zero the restricted views enforced by police barricades, along with the rapid clean-up efforts, gave visitors little to see—only makes the results more impressive. They are among the most shattering pictures to come out of the event, and the quietest.
Subjects with this emotional scale often require oblique angles to prevent content from overwhelming form. For many other photographers, the side door has been the best way in. One of Roger Fenton’s most devastating pictures of war shows clusters of tiny cannonballs among the rutted wastes of the Crimea; it’s both the quiet aftermath of the battle and senseless litter strewn across a godless landscape. Paul Fusco’s heartbreaking book Funeral Train dramatized better than any formal obsequies what the death of Robert F. Kennedy meant to Americans. His deceptively simple approach, almost a flipbook, is a series of glimpses at the many sorts of people who assembled beside the railroad tracks to pay tribute to the man, as the train carrying his body passed through their cities and towns in 1968. Judith Joy Ross’s portraits of visitors to the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C. explore the limitations of monuments as depositories of emotion. Thomas Roma’s recent book Enduring Justice is further proof that the best way to tell a story of journalistic import may be to remove all the usual props. His portrait study of arrestees awaiting punishment in the corridors outside Brooklyn Criminal Court points out how closely the guilty resemble the innocent when it comes to photographic profiling.
The spectators in Bubriski’s pictures are distinct individuals but reflect a collective sorrow. By keeping his focus on the faces and postures of stunned bystanders, he seems to eavesdrop on a series of private moments as well as document a mass demonstration of surging national grief. Everyone in the city during those confusing days will recognize the look and remember the feeling all too well.
The pain is still fresh. Facing west together, they stand alone, in groups, or hold one another. They are staring into a void and they know it. Photography is the art of the instant. But these views, of people lost in thought and turned searchingly toward the past, seem to last longer than their exposure time. Looking at the absence of something that existed only a few weeks before, they are also aware of staring at a mass grave where thousands of innocents were murdered without warning, as their cups of morning coffee cooled on their desks.
In 2001, it was too soon to tell if the various analogies to explain events on and after September 11 would hold. Was the attack another Pearl Harbor? Was it the prelude or the finale to other terrorist acts? Were the men who flew planes into the Towers the vanguard of an army or part of a criminal class, like the Barbary Pirates? These photographs didn’t help answer those questions. The scale of the World Trade Center remained unfixed. But as a measure of what was lost—even if it can’t be seen except reflected in the faces of these strangers—these images may lend perspective to the immense shadows the events of that day still throw across the world.
By Richard B. Woodward
Richard B. Woodward has been an art critic in New York since 1985. His contributions have appeared in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. This essay was published in Kevin Bubriski’s book in 2002.