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Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs

at 72 E. Randolph, through March 30

American flags are everywhere in "Here Is New York: A Democracy of Photographs," a grassroots exhibit that amply documents the events of September 11 and their aftermath. Photograph 927, for example, shows a tattoo artist's needle and his customer's arm, where we see a tear falling from the corner of a U.S. flag draped around the World Trade Center. But a more subtle patriotism also informs this symbolically democratic memorial: all photographs, whether taken by amateurs or professionals, are anonymous, identified only by number.

The presentation is also democratic: ink-jet prints, roughly 1,500 of them hung on the walls and strung overhead, are clipped along taut wires like tenement laundry or pamphlets hot off the press. This somber clutter of matte paper evokes the videos of office paper fluttering from World Trade Center windows, before flames and people began leaping from them.

Photograph 2929 shows such scraps at rest, where we can read a fragment whose calm tone was mocked by the catastrophe: "...and D. Stubbs understood that Mr. Carroll was contemplating..."

Chicago is the first city to host "Here Is New York," a project housed in a SoHo storefront where volunteers continue to scan, print, and exhibit the photographs that keep coming in of apocalyptic dust, twisted steel, and distraught faces. The photographers range from tourists to master photojournalist Gilles Peress, one of the exhibit's organizers. (Indeed, staff members at the Chicago exhibit accept photos about September 11 no matter where or when they were taken.) Perspectives multiply on the project's Web site (www.hereisnewyork.org), where a menu sorts the images by their vantage on Ground Zero according to eight different compass points (north, south, southwest, etc) and 22 other categories, including "flags," "firemen," "onlookers," and "WTC-pre 9/11." The images in Chicago are arranged in no discernible order--although number 1484, of falling bodies, seems purposely placed in a spot easy to miss.

The title "Here Is New York" comes from a 1949 E.B. White essay of the same name, in which he envisages the city's vulnerability to the sort of destruction suffered in Dresden and Hiroshima. A prescient excerpt on a gallery wall reads: "The city, for the first time in its long history, is destructible. A single flight of planes no bigger than a wedge of geese can quickly end this island fantasy, burn the towers, crumble the bridges, turn the underground passages into lethal chambers, cremate the millions. The intimation of mortality is part of New York now: in the sound of jets overhead, in the black headlines of the latest edition."

Whatever medium is used, it's hard to comprehend this tragedy. Michael Shulan, a project organizer who put aside the novel he was writing to work on the show, says in an exhibit essay, "Images of Democracy," that viewing these photos is vital to "absorb what was unabsorbable at the time and to prepare ourselves for whatever was (and is) going to happen next." Shulan, who came to Chicago to oversee the installation, recalled the airliners hitting the World Trade Center: "I watched it from the street, then ran upstairs to watch it on TV to see if my eyes were lying to me." Two videos play in the exhibit. One is an untitled, unedited 70-minute tape shot by Steve Mudrick from his 12th-floor window on West 30th Street. It recalls Andy Warhol's 1964 Empire, an eight-hour, five-minute 16-millimeter film of the iconic New York skyscraper. The other is Etienne Sauret's 11-minute The First 24 Hours, a masterful verite pilgrimage around the site before security restricted access.

Although other video has been donated (including a tape of telephoto shots of people jumping that the videographer cut to a U2 tune), still photos supply the overwhelming portion of the exhibit. "It tore the language out of our throats," says Shulan. He writes that the show is "a testament to the positive power that images can wield when they are freed from the media and allowed to speak for themselves." None of the photographs is even dated: either the towers are present, or they're smoking or collapsing, or they're absent.

"I don't trust words. I trust pictures," Peress said after the events of September 11. But I found that words were my way of comprehending this daunting heap of testimony. I looked for photographs with texts. In number 2552 and number 2501, handwritten signs point to an impromptu morgue, and a graffito in number 1205 says, "Words fail. We have failed." Photograph 2308 shows a sign addressed to "All of You Taking Photos," which reads: "I wonder if you really see whats 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 [of] mourning, I kept wondering what makes us think we can capture the pain, the loss and the pride & the confusion--this complexity--onto a 4 x 5 glossy."

Complicating our experience of this show is the knowledge that depicting tragedies can be sensational, even distancing. Back in 1892, a 400-foot-long 360-degree cyclorama by ten painters depicting the 1871 Great Chicago Fire was installed in a custom-built circular building at Michigan and Monroe. Open daily from 10 AM to 10 PM (adults 50 cents, children 25), this attraction promised "Falling Walls, Burning Bridges, a Sea of Flame! Thousands of helpless and homeless in a mad furious flight for safety. No words can describe the matchless grandeur of the scene!" In his 1991 book The Gulf War Did Not Take Place, philosopher Jean Baudrillard claims that this overtelevised conflict, which almost no one witnessed firsthand, shimmered with miragelike unreality. A similar failure to register horror occurred despite the many photographs of Sarajevo, says Slavenka Drakulic in The Balkan Express: Fragments From the Other Side of War. She argues that "documentation has become a perversion, a pornography of dying," and that writing hasn't helped any more than taking pictures: "All we have achieved with words is to establish Sarajevo as a metaphor for tragedy."

On display here is a massive comment book, "Thoughts and Prayers From the People of Chicago," collected by the city from the public at the September 14 memorial ceremony at Daley Plaza and afterward in the lobby of City Hall. (A copy was sent to Mayor Giuliani and the citizens of New York.) Opened to the first page, which bears the signatures of Mayor Daley and assorted political notables, the Chicago copy is encased in Plexiglas and stands on a pedestal at the rear of the exhibit. Among the messages now hidden inside, which I read back in September before the pages were bound, are:

On the evening of September 11, 2001 over the setting sun, in the skies of southwest Chicago the cirrus clouds looked like guardian angel wings

Very god a bliss of Amicira --Joia

We are all Yankee fans. --Thomas

Initially I was terribly shocked and disturbed. But now I feel a sense of relief, knowing that the bastards behind this will be annihilated. --Christina

To: men/women in combat, Remember to include God when you prepare to go to war. God is our commander-in-chief--let him lead the way. --Susan

May Allah Bless and keep you

This shrine is flanked by the only two photographs that have captions. One depicts firefighters carrying the body of New York fire department chaplain Mychal Judge out of the debris. The other, which captures a cascade of falling rubble shot from below, is labeled "one of Bill Biggart's last pictures." Next to it is a photograph of this freelance photographer's damaged camera and scorched press cards. An announcement for his "requiem eucharist" is on the wall.

The most compelling pictures, though, are not the up-close shots of Ground Zero. The ones that speak to most of us are the many that show New Yorkers helplessly watching from a distance--from rooftops in Brooklyn, from the New Jersey shore, from high-rise windows, from park benches. Or on TV. Framed in the foreground, these viewers are our stand-ins. As one sign in number 5375 states: "You are alive." Which means that, one way or another, you saw this happen and now must make sense of it.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Eric Nederlander.

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