Award-winning photographer Joel Meyerowitz was quietly taking photographs at his summer home on the morning of September 11, 2001 when he heard news of the attack that occurred only a few miles from his Manhattan apartment. He was instantly overcome with a powerful urge to document the destruction at Ground Zero. With an unwavering devotion to the project and his beloved large-format camera in hand, Meyerowitz spent nine months wandering the dangerous landscape of creaking steel pillars and bodily remains. The result is Aftermath: World Trade Center Archive, the recently released compilation of 400 color images, each more moving than the next.
Meyerowitz appeared before an audience at Campbell Hall on Monday, May 12, speaking with an ease and exuberance that made his overwhelming passion readily apparent. He explained that the task of documenting such a politically volatile space was not an easy one. With heavy equipment and no crew, Meyerowitz entered the site alone, only to be thrown out multiple times by police officers. Yet, with a combination of fierce persistence, personal connections, and sheer luck, he became the only photographer to gain unlimited access to the site.
This incredible drive to document the aftermath rose from Meyerowitzâ€™s fear that an important event would lack a visual record and that, as a result, history would be lost. His lens captures not only the â€œpile,â€ as the World Trade Center came to be known, but probes deeper to focus on the 800 people who spent months sorting through the rubble.
â€œI am deeply grateful to have worked alongside these men and women,â€ Meyerowitz writes in the bookâ€™s introduction. â€œI documented the aftermath for everyone who couldnâ€™t be there, but this book is dedicated to those who were.â€
The images themselves are visually arresting, not only for their dramatic scale, but for the otherworldly landscape that they capture. As debris clouds the toxic air, city blocks, filled with piles of metal and wood, cower under giant skeletons; ghostly remains of the towers themselves. Meyerowitzâ€™s lens captures the emptiness that rests, with the dust and dirt, upon the once bustling city blocks, a haunting reminder of the traumatic event that occurred only months earlier.
Yet the photographs also manage to capture the sheer beauty of the scene; not only the early mornings when the sunlight shines through decaying buildings in just the right way, but also the tender moments of kindness that serve as beacons of optimism. One of the most poignant images depicts a fireman delivering flowers and photographs of deceased loved ones to rest on the site. Other images show construction workers sifting through each grain of soil to find remnants of human life.
â€œI was lucky enough to find overwhelming beauty in a place of so much destruction,â€ Meyerowitz said of his experience. â€œIt was an immense privilege.â€