Joel Meyerowitz’ book Aftermath (collecting his pictures taken at the World Trade Centre site in the months following it’s destruction in September 2001) is in every sense, monumental. My copy was dropped of with one of my neighbour by Amazon logistics, and when I went to get it, she appeared from behind her door with an almost comically large parcel. I staggered up the stairs to my flat startled at how much the package actually weighed. It consists of 350 pages, most of which contain photographs. If it was an exhibition it would easily fill a whole floor of Tate Modern. In this way it mimics the enormity of what happened when two aeroplanes were flown into the twin towers of the World Trade Centre in New York on 11th September 2001, but it is also very much a celebration of the way ‘ordinary Americans’ responded to an atrocity carried out upon them.
‘This thing’s gorgeous – absolutely gorgeous. It’s a hard thing to say when you’re dealing with this destruction, but it’s gorgeous’
– Joel Meyerowitz, in Reflections of Ground Zero (Ch4 News, 2004)
In the short (and really rather marvellous) BBC/OU animation Edmund Burke on the Sublime, ‘the sublime’ is defined in opposition to the (merely) beautiful. Beautiful objects are ‘small, beautiful, delicate, delightful, smooth’ (and you could add, feminine and domestic or interior) while the sublime relates to things that are ‘vast, gloomy, dark and threatening’ (and male and related to the great, romantic, outdoors). ‘Beautiful things produce pleasurable feelings; sublime things overwhelm us.’ The sublime object is ‘terrifying’ but still – paradoxically – is pleasurable.
This is precisely the effect that is produced by Meyorowitz’s book collecting his Ground Zero photographs, Aftermath (2006). I have just weighed it on my kitchen scales and it weighs 3.8 kg (more than half a stone); it measures eleven inches by fourteen; to look at it properly, you really need to put it on a table and concentrate. It is a significant object even before you open it and look at the pictures.
And the pictures are great. The LF negatives produce incredibly detailed pictures (and some fold out to twice the size of the open book – 44″ x 14″. Like Gursky’s massive composites (recently on show at the Hayward Gallery in London) you can pore over a single image for quite some time without ever seeming quite to have exhausted it. All of the pictures seem to be striving for something of the impact of classical history painting and many of them achieve it. It is a marvellous record, but – and this is where I think Campany (writing three years before the publication of the book, of corse) gets off track a bit – of the clear up of the site rather than the destruction of the World Trade Centre itself. Destruction fulfills the role of a noun here, rather than a verbal one; the ruins stand in for the act, which is not itself examined.
(The actual collapse of the twin towers lodges in my head as an amalgam of Richard Drew’s Falling Man, the video footage of the planes hitting the towers and the picture of a group of people sitting and talking by the Brooklyn waterfront, seemingly unaware of what it going on behind them (taken by Thomas Hoepker and reproduced in Richard Salkeld’s Reading Photographs on p.91).)
The Channel 4 documentary describes the pictures that Meyerowitz is shown taking as satisfying ‘the need for remembrance of those who grieve, those traumatised by watching the towers fall, whose jobs collapsed with the towers and those who simply lost a beloved landmark‘ (my emphasis). I would place Meyerowitz firmly in that final category – the documentary references him making a series of pictures of the World Trade Centre from the window of his Manhattan studio; these pictures form a pre-credits sequence in the book – and the act of taking the pictures locates him as part of the heroic efforts of
The portraits – presumably mostly taken with the Leica you can see hanging around Meyerowitz’s neck in the Channel 4 footage – which are interspersed with the large format panoramas of the destruction and chaos throughout the book bestow upon their subjects a heroic stature. And that, I think is what he pictures are about – it’s there in the title – the aftermath, the clear up, the restoration of some sort of order to New Yorkers’ sense of them selves. And of course, they also are about inserting Meyerowitz himself into that narrative as a participant, reconnecting himself to the city and helping it remember itself and its actions.
You can only accommodate, unmodified, the positive, wartime narrative of ‘London can take it!’ by suppressing the fact that we (and my use of ‘we’ here, cannot be totally innocent, speaking as it does of a degree of identification with my parents’ generation) went on to totally flatten cities the length and breadth of Germany and that the German’s could ‘take it’ as well); likewise Meyerowitz’s pictures cannot be reconciled with the ongoing chaos in Iraq or Afghanistan (the Channel 4 documentary was aired on the day Kabul fell) without creating a much more complicated story about who the ‘we’ in question is (in this case specifically Americans – the parallel British narrative taking in the 7/7 Tube Bombings , a point at which London once again was delighted to be able to ‘take it,’ is different although no less partial).
The BBC animation goes on to state that the idea of the sublime was a powerful influence upon ‘Romanticism – the artistic movement that extolled the untamed power of the natural world.’ By invoking this untamed, natural power, Meyerowitz neatly sidesteps any question of the (human-made) politics of 9/11. The pictures are primarily a celebration of the people who went in clear up ground zero, made heroic by their juxtaposition with the sublime chaos unleashed, not by al qaeda (political) but by the collapse of the twin towers (natural). The dead are a secondary presence here (many of the people captured in the large format pictures are of course searching for body parts among the debris); a possible way the Channel 4 footage is more informative than the stills is there in the released rushes when Snow is warned not to go down ‘there’ (into the pit at the base of one of the towers) without putting on his mask, because it stinks of the decomposing bodies buried beneath the rubble for two months by the time of filming.
When I watched two of Sam Taylor Wood’s videos – the 2001 piece Still Life (a bowl of fruit decaying in a timelapse sequence) referenced in part 5 of the course book and even more so A little death (2002) where a rabbit decays over 4 minutes of film time – I was struck by how unpleasant making these sequences must have been – Christ! the stink!
Aftermath removes any idea of something outside the purely visual; the sound of digging and diggers, the smells and the taste in your mouth, the wobbliness of rubble beneath you feat, the heat that melted the soles of workers’ shoes are all missing. You are left with a pictorial vision of chaos, but one that has been ordered by the lens and the skill of the man taking the pictures into something approaching art and the eternal.
This invocation of the sublime (with its commensurate banishment of both the human causes of this horror and of much of the physicality of what was left behind) is precisely what I do not want to do with Grenfell tower for Assignment 4. While it is useful to have an ‘anti-template’, it is also a good thing to have something that may form a positive model. For that, I turned to Martha Rosler and her 1974 work, The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems and her 1981 commentary upon that work (or possibly a work in its own right), In, Around, and Afterthoughts (on Documentary Photography).
- Meyerowitz, J (2006) Aftermath. Phaidon Books, London.
- Salskeld, R (2014) Reading photographs – an introduction to the Theory and Meaning of Images. Bloomsbury, London.
- Edmund Burke on the sublime (7/11/2014) BBC Radio 4/OU (accessed online, 04/05/18)
- Jon Snow visits Ground Zero two months after the attack (11/9/2011) Channel 4 on YouTube (accessed 14/5/18)