Reading David Campany’s ‘Safety in Numbness’ prompted me to research the work of Joel Meyerowitz, the photographer who took more than 8,000 images of Ground Zero between 23 September 2001 and 21 June 2002, and also delve a bit more into the idea of documentary photography, in particular so-called ‘late photography’.
A Sense of Moral Duty
Joel Meyerowitz didn’t get formally invited to take photographs of the Ground Zero site after 9/11, he made it his mission to do so. He was turned away by police officers, he visited a museum director to petition the major to get a team of people to create an archive but was refused access. He was given a ‘worker’s badge’ only to be thrown off the site, and so started forging badges instead and dressing up in a hard hat and boots. Eventually, the NYPD Arson & Explosion Squad, who he called his ‘guardian angels’, agreed that photographs were needed as a historical document. (Guardian, 2006).
In an interview with Jonathan Mahler from the New York Times, Meyerowitz compared his task at Ground Zero to that of Dorothea Lange and other photographers commissioned by the Farm Security Administration in the 1930’s to document the effects of the Depression. (Mahler, J. 2006).
In a sense, both Meyerowitz and the likes of Lewis Hine, who documented child workers in America in the early 1900s, clearly both felt a strong compulsion to use their ability to create photographs for a ‘higher’, more morally ‘worthy’ purpose; in Hine’s case to invoke social change; in Meyerowitz’s case, to ensure that there was a clear, unambiguous, and complete photographic historical record of Ground Zero and the events which led to the devastation. To consider Meyerowitz’s images beautiful almost negatively detracts from his purpose in taking them.
The idea of images being taken in the wake of an event being termed ‘cool photography’ by Peter Wollen (Campany, D. 2003), as opposed to photographs taken during the event (‘hot photography’) feels overly simplistic.
An extract from Conrad’s interview with Meyerowitz explains the hazards of the workers at Ground Zero:-
‘He trod on a surface that was still molten, so hot, because of the jet fuel that continued to ignite fires deep below, that it ate through the thick soles of his boots. The debris, in which so many mangled bodies were compounded, was itself lethal. The most frightening of Meyerowitz’s photographs shows a zigzagging fissure that one day, weeks after 9/11, suddenly ripped open a street’.
I would therefore question the idea of Campany’s classification of Meyerwitz’s images being ‘late photography’. Whilst he was at the site over 9 months, undoubtedly there must have been times early in that period when he was photographing the men working in treacherous conditions, unearthing grisly remains, working day and night with little sleep, that it must have felt to both Meyerwitz and those men, that the event and the horror was still happening. To these men, the photography was not ‘late’, nor was it ‘cool’. The problem that photography has, compartmentalising itself into categories and genres feels fraught with difficulty.
The Tate Modern exhibition ‘Conflict Time Photography’ which I visited in December 2014, organised images in rooms, sequentially taken hours, days, weeks, then years after the conflict ‘event’ occurred, and clearly demonstrated the problem of adding all ‘after event’ photographs under a single defining ‘type’.
Images shot seconds after an event such as Don McCullin’s ‘Shell-shocked US Marine’ (1968), an image of a traumatised soldier unable to register the presence of a camera, felt almost visceral and intrusive, and contrast vastly to Sophie Ristelhueber’s ‘Fait’ (1991), a series of images taken 7 months after the end of the Gulf War, of the ‘wounds inflicted on the desert landscape’ of Kuwait, which felt altogether more ‘poetic’, calm and beautiful even. Collectively they were exhibited like a mosaic, a series of beautiful textures, rather than anything resembling the outcome of a bloody war.
In contrast to the above images, there is palpable emotion generated by Meyervitz’s photograph below of firemen and rescue workers sat resting as a group. The exhaustion is etched across the face of the dusty clothed bodies. Various of their expressions are dazed and showing them almost incapable of assimilating the event and the horror. For those involved in the clear up of 9/11, it was very much a protracted event as they worked night and day in the immediate aftermath to find signs of life and later, signs of former life in the form of bones and personal effects.
It seems to me that there is a period of ‘limbo’ where the event or atrocity has occurred and people have not left the scene – their activities they are carrying out are as a direct link to the event, that they become intrinsic to it. Their reactions to the event are still visible and all-consuming. So documentary photography during this period not ‘cool’ so much as ‘still very warm’.. where the embers of the ashes are far from dying and the photography is very much ‘of the moment’.
Searching for Meaning
There seems to be a theme in documentary photographs after devastating events that somehow a deeper meaning needs to be derived from the image. It might be that these images carry a duty as being a vehicle for mourning and therefore the image is not allowed to be merely documentary evidence, but it needs a heavier weight to it. In his article for the Guardian, Conrad explains:-
‘Meyerowitz documents a succession of spurious miracles: the truncated support pier of a bridge that resembles a cross, or the swarm of butterflies that the hard-boiled members of the Arson and Explosion Squad take to be transmigrating souls’..
Further, ‘Aftermath closes with Meyerowitz’s photograph of his own lanky shadow imprinted on the ground as he stands over a rough hole that is choked with random refuse. He has a body after all, and it knows where it is bound.’ (Conrad, P. 2006)
For me these type of arguably ‘fanciful’ notions just detract from the story of the images, which stand up in their own right and have enough gravitas without searching for hidden dimensions. I can surmise however that a photographer so caught up with his ‘mission’ or ‘calling’ to document these type of dramatic events, and an obsessive 9 months of focussed work in dreadful circumstances, might lead to consequential embellishment of images in this way.
Access to Horror
I was interested in Campany’s practical reasoning for the emergence of this newly discovered ‘late photography. His argument is that wars such as Vietnam were considered the last ‘photographers war’ because of the chaos of the war itself and the protracted length of the conflict which itself led to a lot of photographic opportunity for documentary ‘war’ images. The Gulf War was very different. He explains:-
‘What few images we saw were satellite images from news journalists along with abstracted military footage and interpretive television graphics. Very few photographers covered the war. They weren’t allowed in. After the war many photographers went to Kuwait to document the leftovers – destroyed tanks, bodies, scarred desert and burning oil fields. Their images often had a post-traumatic disposition, and a mournful paralysis.’
Essentially then, war photography has evolved this way because of lack of access to the events of conflict. It makes infinite sense that to try and glean some kind of reaction to a distant war, is to look at the finer details and make the photography altogether more artistic.
Ultimately the term ‘late’ photography is a clever use of the connotation of death and has arisen from a number of factors. I think that it is too much of a sweeping generalisation to classify all images taken after an event under this heading. The further the passage of time has travelled, the more ‘late’ the documentary photography gets, the more the use of the images changes from being newsworthy to being historical documents.
Campany, D. (2003). Safety in Numbness: Some remarks on the problems of ‘Late Photography’. At http://davidcampany.com/safety-in-numbness/. Accessed at 2/1/2016
Conrad, P. (2006). 9/11: The Aftermath. At http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2006/aug/27/photography.september11. Accessed at 2/1/2016.
Mahler, J. (2006). The Unbuilding. At
Access at 2/1/2016.