PRINT January 2002


September 11 in image and print

THE EVENTS OF SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, were beyond measure. But when the day ended, the visual limits were fixed. The editors of news agencies and newspapers had their film. For all time, there would be certain balls of fire, certain bits of debris, certain last views of the World Trade Center, certain running crowds, certain spectators, certain firefighters, certain oxygen tanks, certain ruins, and certain shirts. They would become part of the national iconography. Two new books, published only eight weeks after the date, suggest in different ways why we have the images we do.

New York September 11, by Magnum Photographers, with an introduction by essayist David Halberstam, lays out the pictures of the day with written testimonies from the photographers. Notably, no member of Magnum, an agency founded in 1947 by Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger, and David “Chim” Seymour, caught either of the planes hitting the towers. The pictures they did make were determined by such factors as when they woke up, where they were, and how readily they believed the reports they heard.

The most astounding shots were taken by Steve McCurry, who had an unobstructed view of the World Trade Center from his office on the north side of Washington Square. He ran to the roof and photographed the two towers on fire and then, in stages, their collapse. He proceeded downtown that night, cut a hole in a cyclone fence near the West Side Highway, and sneaked into Ground Zero, where he took pictures of the firefighters, tiny atop the monstrous ruins.

Susan Meiselas, who didn’t believe the report of the first attack, gathered her cameras after the second plane hit. On the way out, she woke her houseguest, Larry Towell, a Magnum photographer who was in the city for the agency’s annual meeting. Meiselas biked downtown in time to chronicle the running of the crowds after the first building fell. Towell got to the epicenter on foot, but his automatic camera was confused by the sudden darkness. “The green light was blinking, saying, ‘I don’t know what to focus on.’” Finally he got the camera to focus on the bewildered people.

Some of the photographers never reached Manhattan or ended up in the outer boroughs. Thomas Hoepker, a German who lives in Manhattan, tried to escape the traffic on Second Avenue by crossing the East River into Brooklyn. He ended up taking pictures of the smoking skyline from the Manhattan Bridge. Alex Webb, a Brooklynite, abandoned his rental car near the East River. By the time he got to downtown Manhattan, people were scavenging in the deserted streets. He asked a woman what she was looking for. “She told me that she wanted to see what people had been investing in.”

September 11, 2001: A Collection of Newspaper Front Pages Selected by the Poynter Institute, with an introduction by retired New York Times editor Max Frankel, is another matter. Shortly after the event, the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists, posted a notice on its Web site asking news editors to send electronic copies of their front pages. The result is a book with a cumulative power. It shows the front pages of newspapers from the Huntsville Times to The Hindu on the day following the attacks. The bold black headlines are too small for the job: TERROR, ATTACK, HORROR, DESPICABLE, EVIL, BASTARDS, SHATTERED, NIGHTMARE, DEVASTATION. And no matter how many pictures they ran, it was not enough.

After a day most people spent watching, over and over, televised shots of the second plane penetrating the south tower, the newspapers were left to summarize the unfolding of events in single images. It is no surprise that most decided to focus on the instant that the second plane hit. About 100 of the 150 or so front pages compiled in the book include some image of that moment. (The foreign papers were more likely to print pictures of the collapse, the ruins, and, in two cases, people jumping or falling from the towers.) The surprise, especially after seeing the Magnum book, is how many different images of the second attack there seem to be.

But how many photographers really documented the second plane hitting? If you look carefully and weed out the images taken from news helicopters, you will see that, in most cases, it is the same half-dozen pictures used again and again. Despite some variation in color and cropping, you can recognize the images by their distinguishing marks, the way you would a face.

Miraculously, two still photographers—Carmen Taylor for the Associated Press and Kelly Guenther for the New York Times—captured the second plane before and as it struck. Taylor’s sequence appears in a dozen papers, in whole or in part. And it is not hard to see why. Taken from the south, an unusual perspective that day (almost all the pictures are from the east except those taken from choppers), this series shows a plane banking to the left as it aims for the building, just to the right of Henry Hardenbergh’s Whitehall building. Two fireballs appear at the moment of impact, then there is smoke and a shower of debris.

Guenther’s series (used nine times) was taken from the east. It has a stillness to it. The plane appears in the first frame like a toy over a model skyline. Next, the tower explodes in an orange cloud, but the rest of the cityscape seems unperturbed. There is a Lego-like unreality to Guenther’s shots, with a green pitched roof in front of the towers and a skyscraper needle on either side.

But these series were not printed as often or as large as the photos focused on the fireballs themselves. The most popular image (appearing thirteen times) was made by Chao Soi Cheong for the Associated Press, shooting from the ground and slightly to the north and east of the towers. You can identify it by the way the smoke crosses the antenna of the north tower at a forty-five-degree angle and by the black building just to the left of the south tower.

Spencer Platt’s picture for Getty Images (appearing nine times) is notable for its symmetry and straight-on view. Platt was directly east of the towers and apparently had a much higher vantage point than other photographers. Here the fireball is an orange-and-yellow cloud floating lightly in front of both towers. A little farther south, but at the same moment (the fireball has some of the same identifying marks), Kristen Brochmann made her picture for the New York Times. Its signal feature is a hot-orange rolling pin of flame shooting out to the left.

In the ruins a few iconic shots were found, but only a few. The photographers seemed to have been seriously restricted. Some of them took identical shots of a perfect fork-shaped slab. And two now-classic pictures, one of the facade with a hole in the center and one of some remnants poking aimlessly out of the ground, were taken by Shawn Baldwin for the Associated Press. Another of his pictures, taken from farther back, reveals that these two motifs were right next to each other.

A huge number of terrified faces must have been photographed that day. But for some reason only a handful became icons: those scared businessmen running for their lives, caught by Suzanne Plunkett; a lone man walking toward the ruins with a little red fire extinguisher, captured by Doug Kanter; an ash-covered man with a cloth over his face, photographed by Stan Honda.

A few photographers seem keenly aware of visual precedents. In taking his shot of firemen planting a flag, Thomas E. Franklin must have had in mind the soldiers at Iwo Jima. Two images by Gulnara Samoilova appear to draw on art-historical iconography: A man carries a wounded woman like a deposed Christ, and a group walking behind a young woman with her left hand behind her head echoes Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People.

Of all the faces, though, none were more often reproduced than the ones in Ernesto Mora’s photograph of a young woman in sunglasses and a rose-colored shirt sucking in her breath and cradling another woman’s head. It runs like a pink punctuation mark through the pages of the day.


New York September 11, by Magnum Photographers (New York: powerHouse Books, 2001), 144 pages.

September 11, 2001: A Collection of Newspaper Front Pages Selected by the Poynter Institute (Kansas City: Andrews McMeel, 2001), 160 pages.