Note on These Photographs

These photographs are all from current museum exhibitions (see credits). The changes in New York and among New Yorkers over the past six months have profoundly influenced New York City museums.

Beginning on the very day of the terrorist attacks, New Yorkers have worked to make sure the events of September 11th, 2001 would not be erased -- from their own memories, or from history. In the first weeks, color photocopies of the missing were plastered on bus shelters and lampposts. "Walls of prayers" and makeshift shrines and memorials sprang up throughout the city, many placed outside firehouses. Photographs of many of these spontaneous displays are being presented in an exhibition entitled "Missing: Streetscape Of A City In Mourning," the third in a series of 9/11-related exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society.

New Yorkers' need to be official witnesses, to document, to "do something," resulted in several group projects. The photographers of the Magnum Photo Agency who happened to be in town for a meeting, put together a book and the first of the 9/11-related exhibitions at the New-York Historical Society. In two weeks, 69 photographers took 10,000 photographs of the Fire Department for "Brotherhood," which was first a book and is now an exhibition of some 70 of those pictures at the Museum of the City of New York.

There were also two nearly-spontaneous exhibitions within blocks of one another in Soho. Both "Here Is New York," at 116 Prince Street and the "September 11 Photo Project," at 26 Wooster Street, displayed thousands of photographs of the terrorist attack and its aftermath, taken by professionals and amateurs alike. They were printed on color photocopies and tacked to the wall in a conscious effort to re-create the look and feel of the spontaneous "exhibitions" that had been on the streets.

Now many of the best photographs from "Here Is New York" are part of a slide show in "Life of The City," at the Museum of Modern Art. It is not the only thing that this museum show has taken from the earlier 9/11 displays. There are also several walls of the exhibition reserved for new photographs of the city by anybody who has pictures to contribute; the museum has announced that it hopes to display every photograph that it receives. The contributions are unframed, unsigned, informal, put up on the wall with thumbtacks. They are right next to the walls of photographs taken from the museum's permanent collection, 156 pictures of the city by such famous photographers as Edward Steichen and Alfred Stieglitz, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Berenice Abbott, Irving Penn and Weegee, framed and formal.

With such shows, museums are redefining what a museum exhibition means, erasing the line separating amateur from professional -- as if to say, "we are all in this together" (or, more pessimistically, "the professionals didn't know anything more than the rest of us") -- and rethinking the long-held belief that a museum exhibition takes years of preparation. It is almost as if New Yorkers reacted to the sudden destruction of something as "permanent" as the Twin Towers by seeing the city, and everything in it, as really just makeshift, temporary. Can it be a coincidence that one of the first official memorials for the World Trade Center victims, is nothing more solid than two light beams in the sky?

 

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