Sunday, April 8, 2012

On controversy, icons and photography

There's a photograph that's been making the rounds for six years that continues to create a stir. Five young adults, a woman and four men, are engaged in what appears to be casual conversation on the banks of the East River in the neighborhood of Williamsburg in Brooklyn. The photograph could be an ad for high priced vodka, or an illustration for a lifestyle piece on artists living in Williamsburg, were it not for the background which dates the photograph almost to the minute. The picture was taken on September 11, 2001 and in the background is the Manhattan skyline with a huge plume of smoke emanating from the spot where the World Trade Center stood, only minutes before.

Of the hundreds of thousands of photographs made that day, this particular one sat in a box for years as its author, Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker, felt it was too enigmatic to publish given the raw emotions of the time. The photo was finally published four years later, and was picked up by the New York Times critic Frank Rich on the fifth anniversary of the attack. It has since been dubbed "The most controversial photograph of 9/11."

Rich uses the subjects in the photograph and their alleged indifference to what's going on behind them to illustrate how quickly Americans would put the sorry event behind them. He wrote:

Seen from the perspective of 9/11’s fifth anniversary, Mr. Hoepker’s photo is prescient as well as important — a snapshot of history soon to come... This is a country that likes to move on, and fast. The young people in Mr. Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American. 

The article then goes on to blast the Bush administration and in typical Rich style, everything he finds objectionable about Americans.

Did Americans really just keep on going, throwing off 9/11 like a bad penny? I hardly think so. Today, five years since the Times article and more than ten years since the tragedy, 9/11 is still a festering sore.  Yes there is some indifference. I wrote about that subject in this space last year. However in most cases, the very words "nine eleven" evoke horror, grief and sorrow, just as they did ten years ago. That date will live in infamy long after the last generation who was around to witness it has passed on. Most importantly, our soldiers are still sacrificing their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan, direct results of the attacks of 9/11. They don't have the luxury of tossing away that day, nor has any American who cares about them or the memory of their fallen comrades, or needless to say, the direct victims of 9/11.

We move on, yes, but only because life demands that of us. What else can we do?

Not only do I discount Rich's assessment of the American psyche since the attacks, but I find his remarks about the photograph, which have since been expanded upon by others, to be not only dead wrong, but also lazy and harmful.

In my opinion, Rich's (and others') assumptions about Hoepker's photograph tell us absolutely nothing about 9/11. They do say a great deal however about the medium of photography and its ability to manipulate, misinform and distort reality.

On a quick glance, the five subjects do appear to be oblivious to the tragedy that is taking place just a few miles away. There are no tears, no grimaces, no beating of the breasts. No one is gazing off to the south to look at the scene of the terrible carnage. The ease of their posture suggests they could be chatting about their artwork, or the new night club down the block.

Frank Rich assumes they have already moved on, just minutes after the towers fell.

But how does he know that? What's to say these folks weren't in lower Manhattan when the planes hit, evacuated the borough via the Brooklyn Bridge, made their way up to Williamsburg and just before the photographer snapped their picture, caught up with their friends, relieved that they too were safely out of harm's way?

The truth as we'll see in a minute, not surprisingly exists somewhere between these two highly unlikely scenarios.

The question is, does the truth behind this picture really matter? A "work of art", as this photograph is portrayed in Jonathan Jones's recent article in the Guardian, represents a greater reality, one that goes beyond the picture frame. Jones suggests that the Hoepker photograph illustrates the very human condition of life going on in the face of tragedy, which is a recurrent theme in art throughout history. Yet paintings and literature represent symbolic figures. Portrayed within the frame of Hoepker's photo are recognizable individuals who have stories that may or may not jibe with Thomas Hoepker's, Frank Rich's, Jonathan Jones's or anyone else's assumptions. Given that I'd say yes, the truth does matter a great deal. And if we don't know the story behind those people in the photograph, then it's best to leave them, and the picture alone.

This is nothing new. The history of photography is filled with iconic images that aren't exactly what they seem. There is a famous photograph by Margaret Bourke White that portrays a Depression era bread line made up of African American people. The people are standing in front of a billboard that pictures a happy white family driving in their car, the copy of the sign reading: "World's Highest Standard of Living; There's no way like the American Way." The irony of this scene is pretty hard to miss and for years the photograph has been used to illustrate the inequality between the races in this country. Now there's absolutely nothing made up about the photograph, but what some folks who use it to illustrate racial inequality in America fail to mention is that the people in the bread line were flood victims. They were temporarily dispossessed naturally, but we simply don't know what their everyday lives were like and where they fit in the overall economic spectrum. Like the 9/11 photograph, the subjects of the Bourke White photograph were recognizable and may or may not have appreciated being used as symbols of a cause.

One of Diane Arbus's most enduring images is of a young boy in a park, holding a toy hand grenade. He holds his body in an unnaturally stiff position, his free hand in a claw grip, and there is a bone chilling grimace on his face. It is a haunting, ominous image. That is until you see the proof sheet that shows the rest of the pictures the famous photographer shot of the same boy. In the other pictures, the boy looks like a normal little kid hamming it up for the camera. The picture Arbus chose to use was the last shot on the roll where the child, possibly out of frustration, or boredom of being photographed, mugging it up to the extreme, strikes the curious pose. Arbus was known for her portraits of freakish looking people and this picture used in the context of her other work, made a statement about the human condition, one that the artist conjured up in her mind.

The subjects of the 9/11 photograph were not asked permission to be photographed. That's not at all unusual in photojournalism. The photographer writes that in his journey down through Brooklyn to get closer to Ground Zero, he came across this scene of relative tranquility in the midst of the chaos. He snapped three pictures and moved on. There was no contact between him and the subjects so he couldn't have possibly known their stories. I'm guessing, being a photographer myself, after shooting only three frames in the midst of a day like that, he probably put those folks entirely out of his mind until he saw the images.

Shortly after Rich's article came out in the Times, David Plotz of Slate Magazine published an article whose title expressed his feelings in no uncertain terms: "Frank Rich is Wrong About That 9/11 Photograph." The article is so spot on that instead of quoting sections from it here, I suggest you just read it yourself. Plotz not only made some assumptions of his own about the subjects of the photograph, but asked them to contact Slate to tell their story. Two of them did. You should read their replies for yourself as well, here.

It turns out that two of the people, a couple at the time, watched the Twin Towers collapse from their rooftop in Williamsburg. Shocked like everyone else, they made their way down to the waterfront where they saw thousands of folks covered in dust walking across the Williamsburg Bridge, helping each other in any way they could. Before the famous brief encounter with Hoepker and their date with destiny, the couple encountered the other three men in the picture, all total strangers. The man in the photograph noted that the event brought people together in ways only a catastrophe can. He writes:

Had Hoepker walked fifty feet over to introduce himself he would have discovered a bunch of New Yorkers in the middle of an animated discussion about what had just happened. He instead chose to publish the photograph that allowed him to draw the conclusions he wished to draw... A more honest conclusion might start by acknowledging just how easily a photograph can be manipulated, especially in the advancement of one's own biases or in the service of one's own career.

The woman in the photograph wrote later confirming the man's words and added that she too is a professional photographer who didn't touch her camera that day, in part because:

This somewhat cynical expression of an assumed reality printed in the New York Times proves a good reason... I also have a strict policy of never taking a photograph of a person without their permission or knowledge of my intent.

She went on:

I am a third-generation native New Yorker, who knows and loves every square inch of this city, as did her ancestors before her. My mother and father are both architects and artists who have contributed much to the landscape of this city and my knowledge of the buildings that are my hometown and my childhood friends.

The woman added that her mother once worked for Minoru Yanasaki, the architect of the World Trade Center and concludes: was genetically impossible for me to be unaffected by this event. 

So it turns out that Frank Rich was right on one point; the photograph is indeed an important, perhaps iconic image that illustrates the American experience on 9/11.

It just illustrated the opposite of what he assumed.


David Travis said...

Well written and reasoned piece of observation informed by being a photographer and a serious viewer of photographs. Thanks. Too bad this was not the first text published on the photograph. - David Travis

James Iska said...

Thanks David, Yes I'm only five years too late!