Television broadcast the collapse of the World Trade Center live, and endlessly replayed the footage. Untold millions of printed words have been devoted to describing the events of Sept. 11. And yet the most eloquent record of the tragedy can be found in still photography.
One can sit and study photographic images from the attacks for hours, amazed even now that what was captured so vividly on film could have occurred just that way. Many observers noted that watching the live TV coverage of the second plane hitting the South Tower felt like watching a Hollywood movie -- we're all accustomed, as viewers of moving images, to seeing the unbelievable made to appear real, but still photos retain a documentary authority, a purity that makes them even more powerful.
It is hard to recall when this power has been displayed to more stunning effect than in the coverage of the World Trade Center atrocity, and its aftermath. Stirring pictures were taken at the Pentagon, near Shanksville, Pa., and in other relevant places, but the shots in Lower Manhattan, because of the scale of the devastation there, are the most compelling.
What distinguishes Eleven: Witnessing the World Trade Center 1974-2001 by the photographers of Contact Press Images (Universe Publishing, 176 pages, $29.95) among the numerous books of 9 / 11 photography being published now, is the inclusion of many beautiful images of the Towers before their destruction. For many New Yorkers, myself included, the World Trade Center was just part of the landscape: massive, yes, but less graceful and inspired than older skyscrapers like the Empire State Building and the Chrysler Building. Now that the structures are gone we appreciate their majesty as never before, and mourn their loss to a skyline that will seem diminished for years to come.
The September 11 Photo Project edited by Michael Feldschuh (Regan Books, 208 pages, $29.95) collects the best from a grass-roots exhibit that opened in a donated SoHo gallery last October. The organizers invited the public to contribute images about the tragedy -- it grew to include 3,500 photos and was exhibited in several locations across the country this year. What makes the book successful is its range -- a garish bus shelter ad in New York is plastered with the faces of the missing in one photo; in another the words "Kill 'Em" are spelled out on a suburban fence.
Several books take a more standard, journalistic approach, depicting the arc of the Sept. 11 story in roughly chronological order.
September 11, A Testimony (Reuters Prentice Hall, 272 pages, $29) is the most elegant of these, with news photographs from all over the world including portraits of the powerful -- Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and Jacques Chirac -- responding to the tragedy. One Nation: America Remembers September 11, 2001 (Little Brown, 192 pages, $29.95) was produced by the people who used to bring you Life magazine, and has that magazine's trademark warmth, and Middle-America feel.
September 11, 2001: A Record of Tragedy, Heroism, and Hope by the editors of New York Magazine (Abrams, 128 pages, $19.95) lacks coherence, but includes a haunting image of desperate workers hanging out of the broken windows in burning North Tower. It's a difficult photograph to look at, but like so many images in these books it's important to see so that we're reminded of what continues to be at stake.