“Something awful has happened! An airplane hit one of the Trade Towers!” yelled a friend through the darkroom door. I was making prints for a book on Vermont farm women
I rushed upstairs and watched the Trade Tower burning. Then I saw the other plane hit the second tower. I could feel the terror in the airline passengers and the people in the tower, watching, perhaps not believing, what was happening. A spurt of flame blew through the tower. Fire, smoke and then the Towers crumbled, as if they were sand castles built too high. I didn’t say a word and watched the television for the rest of the day.
As a journalist and photographer, I should have rushed down to Ground Zero to photograph the tragedy. I didn’t. I couldn’t go down to document this loss; to take heroic photographs of tragedy, for the destruction of the towers and the death of so many people lay too monstrous in my soul, torturing my psyche. I crawled into myself.
For seven years, from the late 1970s to the mid 1980s, I lived in Manhattan and photographed the Twin Towers—Winter, summer, spring, fall, at dawn and at dusk. From the plaza below the Trade Towers, looking straight up, from the top looking down at Manhattan glowing with hustle, the north to the Empire State and to the south the harbor, blue and serene at dusk. I photographed the Towers from the Statue of Liberty, from Brooklyn, from the Empire State Building, and in New Jersey from Liberty State Park, the World War II ammunition loading pier in Bayonne, and from the Colgate building, then a hangout for winos and druggies (I carried a pistol in my camera bag). . . from Steven’s Point and Weehawken, where Burr killed Hamilton in a duel. From that vantage the two towers blended into one. My photo agency, The Image Bank, sold these photographs all over the world.
My favorite spot was at the end of the ammunition pier in Bayonne that extended over a mile into the harbor, and you could line up the Statue of Liberty between the Trade Towers. I went out there at dawn and watched the sun rise over Manhattan, light changing from grey to blue to pink. Once I stood behind my camera from dawn until midmorning on an August day that would turn humid-hot and I watched the light change, until a haze of heat whitened the towers. Helicopters, halfway below the towers’ summit, buzzed back and forth and nearer to me seagulls glided. The scene was diaphanous, gossamer delicate.
I would return to the pier on afternoons when a northwest front moved into Manhattan, bringing with it a clarity that sparkled, a deep blue sky and puffy clouds. The first day would be pristine, the second day lost a bit of that freshness, the third day turned hazy. I would drive through the Holland Tunnel to Bayonne, hike with a camera pack and tripod to the end of the pier, and set up the camera and wait, and every so often take photographs as the sun slipped overhead to western New Jersey, changing the light and color of lower Manhattan every fifteen minutes. After sunset I would wait until that magical moment when the sky turned a mystical blue and the Towers lit up, blocks of light and form against a backdrop fading from blue to black. Sometimes the full moon would rise over the Brooklyn Bridge and arc over the Towers. It was thrilling to watch the floors light up until the Towers became living, pulsing beings. To me they were vibrant structures of life. They represented what New York stood for—a jolt of wired energy, a tangible power with an intangible force.
The Trade Towers anchored the New York skyline and replaced the Empire State Building as the city’s prima donna. At the summer solstice, the sun was far enough north so that, when it set, and if you were standing on the pier in Hoboken, it reflected directly off the Towers, turning them into golden, shimmering mirrors. The Empire State could never do that. The Trade Towers had a beauty that surged through my camera lens, to my eye, my brain, my soul, living within me. It was my sort of high.
For a while I lived at the corner of Spring and Broadway in Soho and bicycled throughout the city. The towers were my geographical index. I would bike serendipitously, looking for photo locations.
I returned to Vermont in the mid-1980s. In Manhattan the yuppies had moved in and buildings were being converted into coops and I, always subleasing, was kicked from apartment to apartment. Finally the rents climbed so high I said the hell with it. I kept my bicycle in New York, and would drive down, bike the city, a risk sport to me, and continue to visit those secret stashes where I would photograph the Manhattan skyline, and my Trade Towers. No matter how many times I went to a particular vantage point to take photographs, the light on the Towers was always different.
Something shriveled in me on Wednesday, September 11, 2001. I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the week. I moped in my home. On the weekend I dragged myself out, and with my Airstream in tow, drove to Benson, Vermont, where I photographed Jeanne Bartholomew, a farmwoman. It was a subdued day. The interview I had, and the photographs I took, seemed to be a relief for Jeanne and me. Neither of us had much to say about the Towers, and when we did, we didn’t look at each other.
I parked my camper in one of their hayfields that had just been mowed. On Saturday night, at dusk, I sat in a chair and watched four deer feeding on the upper edge of the field in front of the forest kept at bay by a stone wall. Night overpowered dusk, obliterating the deer. Then the stars came out, brilliant sparks on a cool black night
Morning fog evaporated into a brilliant Sunday canopied by a deep blue sky. It was the same weather pattern they had in New York when the planes struck, the type of day I would say to myself, when I lived there, and looked at the Towers standing tall above the buildings in Soho, “What a great day to be alive!”
It was so quiet in that Vermont field on this particular Sunday morning. No commercial or private aircraft were flying in the United States. Not even a wisp of a contrail. The morning sun was bright and dried the dew quickly. A couple of grasshoppers fluttered and whirred. The silence that was in the sky subsumed my soul and a dark void filled me. In midmorning, it was broken by the noise of a jet engine—a National Guard fighter from Burlington, patrolling the perimeter.
I cannot look at any photographs of the Trade Towers destruction, nor can I read about the pain of the rescuers or the survivors. I avert my eyes to these photographs and videos. I think of the people ground to ashes. The symbol of New York is crumbled. I think of the beauty in my soul, molded by those photographs of the Towers, now devastated
For three years I would not go to New York. I read the stories behind the victims printed in the New York Times, but I never could read more than three before I was crushed by the hope and vibrancy killed on that day.
Something died within me. A friend suggested I seek counsel, but I can care for it in my way. I will go back to Manhattan and try to rid myself of this angst. I will visit Ground Zero, and walk along the bay to Liberty State Park and visit the ammunition pier, which I hear has been broken in two, and I will go to Hoboken and to Weekhawken and to Brooklyn, where I will watch the sun set and where the Brooklyn Bridge and the Trade Towers were silhouetted against the setting sun, only this time there will be a hole in what I see, and in my soul.
What has happened? Is it desecration? Is it a loss of humanity and innocence, of an era in New York when America and I were supremely happy . . . and naive? Or is it a loss of beauty? I don’t know. I’ll go to New York sometime, but not soon, and try to put this death to rest.
When I returned to New York, I looked down at the hole at Ground Zero. I stared at the wounded bronze globe from the Towers Plaza, now in the Battery. I took a boat taxi to New Jersey and walked along the bay to Liberty State Park. The ghost marina, the old factory buildings in Hoboken, the winos and druggies, even the Colgate clock, have vanished. The shoreline is pristine, gentrified, clean, perfect and it does not feel right. I walked half way down to the Park , stopped, turned around and looked at southern tip of Manhattan, where the Trade Towers rose, surrounded by water. Now it appears as a flat shoreline.