NEW YORK - On chic Prince Street in New York's SoHo neighborhood, a 20-minute walk from the World Trade Center site, at least 100 people wait in line to revisit the catastrophe that has consumed them since Sept. 11.
"Here is New York: Images from the Frontline of History," a rotating exhibit devoted to the terrorism attack and its aftermath, offers more of what they've already seen plenty of: nightmarish landscapes of dazed citizens, devastation, paralyzing grief. But somehow, untold images in untold publications are still not enough for those willing to wait half an hour to see this show.
Inside the temporary gallery, cobbled from two empty storefronts, visitors debate the aesthetics of one view of the disaster compared to another. They jot down the numbers of photos they plan to buy as digital copies. "That's a fabulous photograph, isn't it? My God!" says a woman as she eyes a well-cropped image of destruction.
A man from Philadelphia is transfixed by the photograph of a woman in what would ordinarily be a mundane pose. While leaning against a doorway, a cell phone cradled on her shoulder, she gazes at the lower Manhattan skyline. The man sees what she sees: one of the twin towers engulfed in flame and smoke. The juxtaposition of banality and evil drives the horror home in a way more graphic images from the show, subtitled "A Democracy of Photography," cannot. The photo already has appeared in several publications, and the London Times and Vanity Fair have also expressed interest in the image.
"Wow, you're famous. I'll remember you the rest of my life," the man from Philadelphia tells Eric Nederlander, the novice photographer who took the photo of his girlfriend. Nederlander is also a theater producer who, as it happens, is a bit famous.
But for the content of the show, this exchange could be just another set piece in a community known for its edgy vitality and amusing self-absorption. The Woody Allen-esque possibilities only increase when a man, standing outside, shouts into the gallery: "Anything with gaping holes in the chest?" How much does death and destruction go for these days; what kind of a commodity is it, he demands, before drifting away. Gallery visitors shrug and laugh uncomfortably.
Proceeds from photograph sales will benefit the Children's Aid Society World Trade Center relief fund, not gallery managers. But the angry man has tweaked a nerve. Are the exhibitors exploiting or documenting the gruesome attack? And have the visitors, some of whom will visit ground zero when they're finished here, come to bear witness, as many profess, or to gawk?
What lies beneath the desire to display these photos and the need to see them - especially when the media already offers a surfeit of cruel imagery?
The angry man on the street thinks he knows the answer: base curiosity. But at this strange juncture, where an unprecedented mode of violence has been captured by unprecedented numbers of cameras, it's all too simple to assume that the gallery exhibitors and guests' worst instincts are solely to blame for the success of this grim show.
Within moments of September's terrorist attacks, witnesses rushed to record the horror. Since then, a nonstop stream of images has been burned into the national psyche.
Thousands of photographers, amateur and professional, have contributed to the body of work. The SoHo show, the most publicized, is just one of numerous instantly mounted exhibits that chronicle the terrible events, even as they continue to unfold.
In the lobby of Baltimore's Pennsylvania Station, panoramic views of the destruction perch on twisted metal, to simulate the WTC's grotesque collapse.
At the Municipal Arts Society in midtown Manhattan, "MISSING," an exhibit featuring photos of the impromptu shrines created to pay tribute to the dead, recently opened. The exhibit is accompanied by a continuing slide show in which larger-than-life size slides of more than 800 victims are projected against a backdrop of New York Times obituaries and stories.
Photographer Joe McNally's life-size photos of rescue workers, survivors and relatives are scheduled to appear in a gallery exhibit, Life magazine and a hardcover book. In a Toronto gallery, Harry Benson's photographs of the disaster are on display. In Atlanta, a local gallery is showing the work of a photographer named Alli Royce Soble, who happened to be in New York on Sept. 11.
Staff members at the Municipal Art Society, an organization devoted to New York's "built environment," had to think fast about their institution's response to the tragedy. Deciding what's appropriate and what's inappropriate has made for touchy conversation, says Aimee Molloy, the society's director of exhibits.
There was never any doubt about the need to respond, Molloy says. But instead of being part of the immediate debate among architects and preservationists on how to rebuild at the WTC site, the society decided to concentrate on the creative way the dead were being remembered.
The shrine photographs, taken by Martha Cooper, of City Lore, a cultural heritage organization, allow non-New Yorkers to see the city's "amazingly creative response" to the attacks, Molloy says. For New Yorkers, themselves, the show is a way of validating their contribution of words at a time when other contributions, such as blood or ponchos, were superfluous, she says.
"I struggled with the slide show," Molloy says of the images of victims included in the show. She had read their obituaries, was "really moved by them," and wanted to do something to honor the victims. But Molloy also asked herself: "If I had lost someone, what would be too much?"
Ultimately, she decided that the slides are a way to make real the huge death toll. "When you say 5,000 people, that doesn't force you think of them as individuals," Molloy says. "It's amazing to stand there and see them as individuals."
Molloy had another dilemma: "I didn't know how to open this show." The subject matter didn't lend itself to celebration. So she decided on a low-key approach, and substituted comforting coffee and dessert for more festive wine and cheese.
The society's show has been well-attended, Molloy says. By creating the aura of a shrine, complete with flickering candles and a guestbook, "MISSING" has an interactive quality that sets it apart from a photo essay. "It's different than sitting at a kitchen table turning the pages of a magazine," Molloy says. It's a place for visitors to mourn together and to express gratitude for the anonymous artists throughout the city, she says.
At the "Here is New York" show, Eric Nederlander tries to explain why he grabbed a camera when the twin towers were struck. "It was such an amazing thing. I felt like I had to capture it in some way. ... At the time, I didn't give it a lot of thought. I just was in shock as to what I was seeing." But, for Nederlander, who is well acquainted with popular culture, there was something creepily familiar about seeing the skyscrapers collapse. "It's not like you haven't seen it before," he says, referring to fictional accounts of the towers' destruction.
Jan Barton, an interior decorator visiting from Missouri, writes down well over a dozen numbers of photographs she's considering. At home, she's become addicted to watching coverage of the attacks, and yet, "It's easy, especially if you're from out of state, to not be able to understand the emotion of it, unless you get closer to it," she says. Barton is not sure where she'll hang the photographs she buys, but she knows they are "a piece of history."
The photos, numbering more than 2,000, are chilling and eloquent. In some, beauty and documentary fuse into a disturbing whole. One photograph shows a lone, defeated figure walking through an otherworldly universe, turned an ethereal blue green by dust and dusk.
A black-and-white shot depicting a blond woman staring blankly into the distance, might pass for the work of acclaimed contemporary photographer Cindy Sherman. A photo of a man covered with pulverized cement recalls the work of the late figurative sculptor George Segal.
Yet another photograph, taken of a message left at the WTC site, mocks the entire display: "All of you taking photos I wonder if you really see what's here or if you're so concerned with getting that perfect shot that you've forgotten this is a tragedy site, not a tourist attraction. As I continually had to move 'out of someone's way' as they carefully tried to frame this place [sic] mourning, I kept wondering what makes us think we can capture the pain, the loss, the pride and the confusion - this complexity - onto a 4x5 glossy."
Weeks after Sept. 11, Robert R. Macdonald, director of the Museum of the City of New York, convened a meeting of museum officials, including a representative from the Smithsonian Institution, to brainstorm on what to do with the remains of the World Trade Center. He speaks of the "enormity of the challenge of collecting and preserving" hundreds of tons of artifacts, from crushed emergency service vehicles to discarded shoes. As they make plans, historians must take into account "the sensitivity of the site" as well. "Not only is it a crime scene, it's a sacred site, a burial ground for three to 5,000 people," Macdonald says.
While he has accepted the offer of photographer Joel Meyerowitz to document recovery efforts at the World Trade Center site, it is too early to mount an exhibition, he says. "We feel it would be highly inappropriate to display artifacts and even imagery of the tragedy." For now, he says, the task is "to collect, to preserve, to document."
Time will allow Macdonald and colleagues the distance with which to make "judgments [of] what we are interpreting here." As they plan for future exhibits related to the tragedy, museum staff members will have in mind the role played by photographs in documenting past American calamities, from the Civil War to the Great Depression to the Oklahoma City bombing, and photography's catalytic ability to make the dusty past come achingly alive.
That doesn't suggest that the SoHo gallery exhibit and others are in poor taste, Macdonald says. "I think that's very therapeutic for many people, but I think we all have been inundated by the images of the attack and the immediate aftermath."
While Meyerowitz has been granted permission to work in the heart of the site, the point-and-click crowd teems around the fringes of the site. For them, it's not enough to look at others' photos. They must see the disaster through their own lenses. A woman directs her husband, as he takes even more photos of the ruins: "Over here, Honey. Right here, Honey. This is perfect." Another photographer asks two officers to pose beside their cruiser with the tower ruins in the background.
The rubberneckers may seem incredibly crass, but some New Yorkers suggest it may be unfair to judge their actions. The insatiable appetite for photos and videos can be explained, perhaps, by the need to come to terms with a new truth about the way we live. The essay that prefaces the "Here is New York" exhibit speaks of a "new way of looking at and thinking about what has happened, as well as a way of making sense of all the images that have besieged us and continue to haunt us."
It's impossible to draw hard and fast rules about what is too much at a time like this, suggests Macdonald of the Museum of the History of New York. "Every individual has to say, 'What is the proportional response?' "
And if the answer isn't readily available, don't be surprised. Says Macdonald: "It's a profound time, and we haven't adjusted to it yet."
To see the "Here is New York" exhibit online, go to www.hereisnewyork.org.