The Art World Responds to 9/11by Sophie Fels
“Windows of Hope”, “Taste of Brooklyn”, “Concert for New York”–some World Trade Center related benefits have been more directly related to the attack than others. In October, more than 130 art dealers organized group shows of donated work under the name “I Love NY”. The project brought business back to galleries and money to the Robin Hood Foundation, but most of the art on view had been finished well before September 11th. Meanwhile, mounds of more immediately relevant photographs had been taken, and had begun to be displayed. The Leica gallery recently opened and closed a show of Ground Zero images, including some by Mayor Giuliani; photographs from the News, the Post, Newsday and El Diario have set up a shop in the East Village; and the Museum of the City of New York is sponsoring Joel Meyerowitz’s ongoing work at the site. Two small impromptu nonprofit galleries in SoHo are also accepting and displaying a mix of related amateur and professional work.
The September 11 Photo Project and Here is New York both deal exclusively in photographs of and about the events of the 11th. Here is New York opened at 116 Prince on September 28th, with seed images from New York Times and New Yorker photographers, like co-founder Gilles Peress. The September 11th Photo Project opened at 26 Wooster on October 13th, with images and accompanying poems and letters from local amateur photographers, like co-organizing fire-fighter Jim Murray. Here is New York is marketing inkjet copies of its pictures (in unlimited editions, if there is such a thing) for $25 donations, while the September 11th Photo Project doesn’t sell anything.
Contributors to Here is New York, or “anyone and everyone who has taken pictures relating to the tragedy,” mail, email, and carry their work in, sometimes waiting on line for up to an hour. Volunteers look everything over, select items to be scanned and added to the show and its web site, and make sure the artists sign releases allowing their pictures to be reproduced and sold. At desks in the back and offsite, others sort, number, scan, clean, and print pictures for up to 12 hours a day. “Early on there wasn’t much quality control,” says one, “there were notes that said do this and others that said do that–but now we’re trying to get the same people to do the scanning all the time.”
The 4,000 prints that have come through this assembly line document everything from a plane flying low over a yet undisturbed Manhattan (is it real or Photoshop?) to a view of the smoldering ruins from the recently reopened Empire State Building observation deck. The chaos of the days in between includes fleeing pedestrians, mourners at hastily-erected shrines, and Bill Clinton looking–as usual–as if he empathizes. Everything is hung clothesline-style on wires along the walls and ceiling, with black and chrome office supply clips the staff have learned to call “turnbacks.”
Turnbacks are the track lighting of picture hanging hardware, an ostentatiously utilitarian modular system whose installers imagine it disappears into the proverbial woodwork- analogous to the visible structure of the show itself.
Tim Main, a Williamsburg sculptor working the selection desk, says that “There is a lot of repetition, as you can imagine. We’ve passed the peak of new images.” He confirms what the low numbers on the few hundred displayed prints suggest, that most of what’s on display came in early. ”We’ve gotten a little stricter about the number of submissions per person. But we always do take something from everyone.” The show’s current goal is to fill in less photographed angles, figuratively and literally. “Images come out in unexpected places. One guy had a photograph from Fire Island. You could see the smoke all the way from there.”
What about the exhibit’s subtitle, “A Democracy of Photographs”? Main and the other volunteers–curators, editors, photographers, teachers, and various of the unemployed–do turn images away, each on their own criteria. Main says, “I’m very interested in advocating for photographs that fit my vision. That’s less photojournalistic. I look for things that don’t speak of immediate sentimental irony, things that appeal to me formally, shapes arranged in space in ways I haven’t seen before, and quiet or spooky images, if there is such a thing. Images that don’t say ‘I’m a hero fireman.’ We’re also accepting the poorest of the images. I spent a lot of time yesterday making sure they didn’t get shuffled away, making sure they got scanned.”
The most popular of these informally selected candidates gives the staff a bit of pain. “Oh yes, 0569. An 87 year-old called from the Midwest the other day looking for that–she has seen it on Dateline.” 0569 looks out from a broken World Financial Center window onto a black cross welded into the debris. Others hit even closer to home. One volunteer saw a priest encounter an image of himself giving a victim last rites.
When Main and his co-workers turn work away, do they ever send it over to the September 11th Photo Project? “Oh yea. People who come in with personal artwork or interpretive things, we know they’ll take it.” Michael Feldschuh of the Photo Project confirms that his standards are different. Among other things, he encourages words with pictures–from captions and signatures, which Here is New York eschews in the name of image equality, to letters, poems, and political statements. He also feels the spirit is different. “This isn’t Prince Street. This isn’t about curating.” In fact, “The only thing that’s similar is we both have photos on the walls”.
As we spoke, a viewer approached the desk, looking for a video she had heard about on TV. We eventually directed her to Here is New York, where the towers were falling on replay, but not before she edged into hysteria about the possibility that the Burn Center–the Photo Project’s recommended charity, and FDNY sponsored organization whose acting head was killed at the World Trade Center–might be a fraud. She was even more concerned about the show’s lack of Catholic content; she was in town for the funeral of a firefighter with whom she’d gone to parochial school , and repeated several times that most of the three hundred of the Bravest who died on the eleventh were Catholic–Italian, Irish, and Hispanic. Feldschuh encouraged her to submit something to fill the perceived gap, and then shook his head when she left.
“She was enraged,” he said. “If they’re upset, they should contribute a piece. We have one up that caused some trouble, a piece from a Muslim gentleman. A second Muslim gentleman asked us to take it down, and I said that that’s not the American way. Lets just have as much dialogue as possible. If you’ll do a piece in response we’ll hang it right next to his.”
Though the Photo Project is getting some coverage, including appearances in NY1 and 60 Minutes, Here is New York opened first, and with a running start in media contacts. “Sometimes people come in a say I saw you on CNN–well we haven’t been on CNN. At an early stage we talked about whether it made sense to do our shows in the same space. But we’re different. We’re not about fundraising directly. And,” he repeated, “this is not a curated project. We’re not sitting here saying show us your images. And we wouldn’t even dream of saying ‘no, we don’t like it’.” When they run out of space, Feldschuh says, “we’re going to build temporary walls. At worst, we’ll resort to rotating the pictures.”
That may happen soon. At last count Feldschuh’s inventory had passed a thousand works of up to three images each–the shows images are increasingly densely tiled with horizontal series tacked up next to vertical ones, and others in loose, pinwheeling clusters. Asked how these arrangements, which look a bit like a bulletin board of a busy art director or a collage dorm room, developed, Feldschuh says “The only curatorial decision we make”–aside from the defining creative work of conceiving the show and setting standards and limits for submission–“is to group everyone’s pictures together. Each set is like a voice.”
Like a voice moderated by Feldschuh’s hammer and nails, his arguably small design decisions seem scandalously influential to a viewer coming from Here is New York uniformly sized and hung prints. A few weeks ago Feldschuh said he was hanging the day’s pictures after the show closed. Now there is enough of a pattern, and there are enough volunteers, that it gets done during the day. “The TV crews love that, that’s their favorite, someone on a ladder with a hammer. There’s not a lot of action shots here.”
While Here is New York might seem to have the better publishing contacts, Feldschuh says that more than one book company has expressed interest in doing a September 11th Photo Project catalogue. He is talking to several, and tending to other potential spinoffs, “We plan to have the show travel,” he says, which would be one way to thin the crowding walls: ship work to other cities.
At Here is New York a book is a given, and travel is a problem, not an answer. “The two shows printed up this week are going to Berkeley and Santa Monica,” says Main, and indeed the inkjet prints are creaking out as I watch. He says he gave a lot of civic duty lectures to angry New Yorkers whose print orders were delayed by the California exhibits. Asked what they sent out west, another volunteer confirms “a lot of New York Times and Magnum work. And some other stuff.” Chosen for it’s popularity? “Chosen for its visual impact.” And mailed with a description of the turnbacks with which they should be hung. The curator is dead, long live the curator.