On the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, I went to the NYU Department of Photography and Imaging’s exhibition “How Life Has Changed Since 9/11: Works by Faculty and Staff.” My expectations eluded me as I anticipated a cohesive body of work more or less visually relevant to the tragedy. To my surprise, I discovered the artwork varying from photographs of the impromptu post-attack memorials to portraits of children in farming communities, a shot of a penny-sized green frog resting upon a mossy embankment in the jungle, sketches of a nude woman and an abstract painting. The artists in the collection were given great liberty to explore their personal reactions, observations, or lifestyle changes after they experienced the apocalyptic day first-hand. From reflections to responsibility of citizenship for photo documentation, each member contributed a fragment to explore the complicated dynamics of moving forward after trauma.
The gallery was split into two parts; the first was on the main floor, tucked away around the corner from the security desk in an open corridor. It was dimly lit and a cacophony of voices from students chattering on the floor above rained down on the geometric cul-de-sac of images. The second part was an array of the abstract and interpretive artwork in a hallway on the 8th floor. Back on the first floor, with the use of my cell phone, I illuminated the photos, the majority of which registered as direct perspectives of the ordeal: professor Tom Dreysdale’s richly saturated photo of the billowing towers from Bleecker street; Deb Willis’ documentation of the gatherings and memorabilia outside of the FDNY station on west 10th street that were reminiscent of stills from a 1970’s mob movie; and Lorie Novak’s amateur image of a missing persons poster for the two fallen towers, scribbled on with thoughts of hope, the names of missing people, and pleas to not steal the posters. These images were testimonies and witness accounts, immediate connections to that day and period in time, aesthetically captivating, and gut-wrenching. Particularly, Tom Dreysdale’s.
Dreysdale’s main image, looking south from Bleecker Street and LaGuardia place, looks almost like a supersized photo from a toy camera. The rich, saturated blue sky popped behind the icy gray towers nestled in the background of the left third of the frame. Deep charcoal plumes of ash drift to the east, swirling into the vignetted edges of the poster-sized print. However, the main focus of the image was not the towers but a giant advertisement mural on the side of a brick building in the right half of the frame. The ad is a black and white illustration of a stern looking nurse in her mid 60’s on a mint green background, holding up a tin of Altoids. Running across the bottom of the ad in bold, red lettering are the words, “Now this won’t hurt a bit.” The irony is nauseating. Dreysdale said that this was the first time the image has ever been displayed in public. The fact that he sat on it for a decade raises the questions of the obligation and responsibility to show personal perspectives from public tragedy. Regardless of the artistic, political, or social interpretations, the fact that the image is now up on communal walls seems therapeutic. Although I don’t always believe that time heals everything, it seems that the amount he took to face that moment was appropriate for such a contradictory image.
Curatorial distractions aside, the group managed to construct a collaboration of vantage points over the last ten years. Essentially, the title could be removed and the shows point of view would become limitless, but the ambiguous approach works. Respectfully, haven’t we seen enough of the twins? Here’s to the future.