here is new york, an exhibition and sale of photographs of the World Trade Center tragedy that four of us organized about a week after 9.11, began on the ground floor of a small four-story building I own with two others at 116 Prince Street in Soho, some fifteen blocks north of Ground Zero. The space, which for twenty years had been a women’s clothing shop, had been vacant since August. I was sitting at my laptop in the back when the first plane roared over the building. The idea for the exhibition was sparked by an Ancient Greek poem about despair that I saw written out in magic marker on a sheet of newspaper and stuck up on a wall the following afternoon. By this time the police had closed off the neighborhood and people were wandering about aimlessly in surgical masks. I went back to my loft and dug out a nondescript photograph of the Trade Center which I had acquired sometime earlier in the flea market, and taped it up in the window of the shop.
A day or two later, Gilles Peress, who had been down at Ground Zero photographing for the New Yorker, called me on my cell phone and asked what I was doing. I replied that I was in the shop staring at a group of people staring at a photograph, and was thinking about putting up some more. “Do it,” he said, simply. We met the following evening with two other friends and colleagues, Alice Rose George and Charles Traub, and quickly devised a plan. In those turbulent days it seemed as if everyone in New York had a camera, and we decided that the exhibition should be as broad and inclusive as possible, open to “anybody and everybody” — not just photojournalists and other professional photographers but bankers, rescue workers, artists, children, and amateurs of every stripe.
The key, we knew, was to act fast. Alice, a photo editor and independent curator, began calling magazines and newspapers and every photographer she knew, asking them to spread the word and send pictures. Gilles suggested that we scan every submission to turn them into digital files and print them with inkjet printers; Charles, a photographer and Chairman of the MFA Department of Photography and the Related Media at the School of Visual Arts, set about rounding up equipment and student volunteers. I visited several galleries with Alice, looking for some appropriate way to hang the pictures, ultimately — inspired by a snapshot I had taken the previous spring of great clouds of laundry suspended from wires above a tiny street in Naples, Italy — finding it in the local hardware store. Since we had decided to sell the prints for $25 each to raise money for the children of victims, I also looked for a charity. We settled on the Children’ Aid Society, which had already set up a fund for the children of restaurant workers, illegal immigrants and others who were not likely to be provided for by other sources. We are very honored to be associated with them.
The exhibition opened on September 25, and by the beginning of the second week there was a long line at the door. We had originally intended to close on October 15, but by then we had been absolutely inundated with pictures, had filled the original storefront and had expanded to another that also was vacant, in the building next door. Over the course of the next month we announced two more closings, but eventually we decided to stay open until Christmas. By December 24 we had sold more than 30,000 prints, had constructed a website, had sent several exhibitions on the road and had made commitments to do several others. On January 2, when a crowd began to collect in the street, we decided that we had no choice but to reopen.
here is new york is a very minor part of the story of 9.11, but in its own small way it became a microcosm of what took place in the disaster’s aftermath at Ground Zero and elsewhere in the city. Not an art exhibition in the conventional sense, partly an impromptu memorial, partly a rescue effort, and partly a testimonial of support for those who were actually doing the rescuing, it became a rallying point for the neighborhood and for the community at large. Thousands of photographers selflessly donated pictures; hundreds of thousands of people came to view and to buy them at Prince Street and at our other exhibitions; literally millions of people have looked at them on our website. None of this would have been possible without the hundreds of highly skilled and dedicated volunteers who have been with here is new york since its inception, not a few of whom have continually worked ten and twelve hour days, six and seven seven days a week. Along with the photographers, they deserve most of the credit for here is new york’s existence. Alice, Gilles, Charles and I knew from the outset that the exhibition would be powerful, but never for a moment did we think that lines would stretch around the block, disrupting traffic and local businesses. Nor did we imagine that a steady stream of firetrucks and police cars would draw up in front of the building at all hours, the crews who were piling into the storefronts to look at the pictures trailing that horrific smell of Ground Zero that everyone in Lower Manhattan came to know only too well. We started with the help of some friends and a devoted cadre of Charles’ students, but their ranks quickly swelled with photographers, neighbors, artists, housewives, and lawyers — again, “anybody and everybody”. They read about the exhibition in the newspaper, saw a report about it on TV, or came to Prince Street to submit pictures. Then they took it upon themselves to scan pictures, color-correct pictures, print pictures, label pictures, hang pictures, sell pictures, ship pictures and database pictures, as well as to build our website, network our computers, arrange our exhibitions, program our slideshows, do our contracts and tax filings, work on the production of this book, and do everything else that here is new york, by whatever logic, has come to do. We are indebted to them beyond measure. Out of something truly unspeakable has come something truly wonderful: love.
Photography was the perfect medium to express what happened on 9.11, since it is democratic by its very nature and infinitely reproducible. The tragedy at Ground Zero struck all New Yorkers equally, leaving none of us immune to shock or grief. Although the disaster was the lead story in every newspaper in the world, and searing footage of the planes destroying the towers was running on television 24 hours a day, to New Yorkers this wasn’t a news story: it was an unabsorbable nightmare. In order to come to grips with all of this imagery which was haunting us, it was essential, we thought, to reclaim it from the media and stare at it without flinching. Terrorism was all too familiar in other parts of the world, but it had rarely happened in the United States, and never on such a scale. Besides announcing that this is the face of our city’s tragedy, the title here is new york declares that we understand the problem of terrorism to be a global one that respects no geographic or cultural boundaries. After 9.11, New York is Everywhere.
This book contains nearly a thousand of the more than five thousand pictures that some three thousand photographers submitted to the exhibition. It has not been edited to showcase the “best” or the “strongest” images, but to give the most coherent sense of the whole. here is new york has by now amassed one of the largest photographic archives in world history devoted to a single event. But whereas after other events of this magnitude one striking picture has sometimes come to stand for, or to symbolize, what happened, the one picture which will probably come to stand for the World Trade Center tragedy will be all of these pictures. What was captured by these photographs — captured with every conceivable kind of apparatus, from Leicas and digital Nikons to homemade pinhole cameras and little plastic gizmos that schoolchildren wear on their wrists — is truly astonishing: not only grief, and shock, and courage, but a beauty that is at once infernal and profoundly uplifting. The pictures speak both to the horror of what happened on 9.11 (and is still happening), and to the way it can and must be countered by us all. They speak not with one voice, but with one purpose, saying that to make sense of this terrifying new phase in our history we must break down the barriers that divide us.
The guiding principle of here is new york is a simple one. If one photograph tells a story, thousands of photographs tell not only thousands of stories but also perhaps begin to tell the story if they are allowed to speak for themselves, to each other, and to the viewer directly, unframed either by glass, metal or wood, or by preconception or editorial comment. In the political sphere it is this principle, after all, which America’s Founding Fathers advanced when they developed the notion of democracy — that wisdom lies not in the vision and will of any one individual, or small group of individuals, but in the collective vision of us all.
As with print sales from our exhibitions, the net proceeds from the sale of this book will be donated to the Children’s Aid Society and other worthy charities. We hope that it will stand as a living memorial to those who lost their lives on 9.11, as well as a tribute to those who came so valiantly to our aid. It is a testament to the courage and humanity of all New Yorkers. Every picture submitted to here is new york shows without question that terrorism can never succeed anywhere.
The entire archive of photographs can be viewed on our website: www.hereisnewyork.org. Seeing is not only believing. Seeing is seeing.Michael Shulan
Copyright © 2004 here is new york. All rights reserved.