Images of Democracy
by Michael Shulan

By some strange twist of fate, or perhaps one that is not so strange given all the strange twists that have engulfed the world since September 11, two small storefronts on Prince Street about twenty blocks north of Ground Zero have for the moment become the observation deck of the World Trade Center and of the disaster in general, a place where people come to work through their emotions and to take measure of what happened. here is new york , the exhibition and benefit sale of photographs related to September 11 that four of us have organized in SoHo, has clearly struck a nerve. In the two months or so that we have been open, more than 100,000 people have made their way to the exhibition where thousands of photographs are hung floor to ceiling without frames or names, clipped to wires like laundry drying in the alleyways of Naples, Italy.

here is new york is subtitled "a democracy of photographs" because the pictures in it have been contributed by anybody and everybody. The work of world-famous photographers hangs alongside pictures by police officers, firemen, businessmen, housewives, schoolteachers, construction workers, and children. The events of September 11 affected everyone equally, leaving no one immune to confusion, shock, and grief. Right from the beginning we thought that as many people as possible should not only have the opportunity to view these photographs, but also to add their own to the exhibition. In the days following September 11 it seemed that everyone in New York had a camera, and since we put out a call for pictures we have been inundated with slides, negatives, prints, and digital files. We are displaying as many of them as we can, and are adding all of them to what clearly will be the largest archive of its kind in history.

In mid-September, when we first began to receive submissions, we knew that the exhibition would be powerful, but we had no idea how strong the reaction would be. We thought it was absolutely essential to stare what happened directly in the face, in order both to absorb what seemed unabsorbable at the time and to prepare ourselves for whatever was (and is) going to happen next. The photographs, which have all been digitally scanned into computers and then printed out with inkjet printers in exactly the same format, are not easy to look at. Everyone who sees them for the first time remarks on their beauty, but it is a terrible beauty, borne of fire, dust, and death. Digital prints of every photograph are available for $25, with the net proceeds going to the Children's Aid Society's WTC Relief Fund. To date, more than 30,000 have been sold. But these are not pictures to hang on the living-room wall or to live with on a daily basis. Rather, they are pictures to put away in an envelope and then pull out periodically, as spurs to memory and resolve.

here is new york is not principally an art show in the conventional sense. And yet, as the poet T. S. Eliot wrote: "The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an 'objective correlative'; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events that will be the formula of that particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." The emotion in the two storefronts at any given moment is palpable. Photography is the perfect medium to express what happened on September 11, because it is democratic by its very nature and infinitely reproducible. A large proportion of those who come to here is new york probably never go to art shows, but as they move from photograph to photograph, searching for just the one that speaks to their particular emotion, the power of art to move and even to heal is continually affirmed. So, in its way, is the power of technology when it is used as a tool rather than as an end in itself, when it is put into the service of real meaning and purpose. All of the computers and printers that we use to produce prints at here is new york are inexpensive and simple to operate, opening the way for almost everyone to achieve an astonishingly high level of photographic expression.

Michael Shulan is a writer and one of the founders of here is new york .

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