Looking into the past: the illusion of stopping time

Crowd Watching the World Trade Center Burn from the Brooklyn Promenade, September 11, 2001 © Jason Powell/Michael Foran

It’s been a while since I last posted here; it’s been a busy summer, punctuated by a much-needed holiday in rural France. I toyed with the idea of making the 6 hour drive south to Visa Pour l’Image at Perpignan, but it felt it would be too much like work, so I opted for the Cote Sauvage instead. It was a wise decision. I’ll do Perpignan next year, promise.

Back in London this weekend, and it was a breezy, early September day, much like that day in New York a decade ago. We all remember where we were, how we heard. (me, in a photo studio in north London, listening to what sounded like the War of the Worlds on the radio – no TV, no internet).

But what’s struck me over the last few days, is just how well served our collective consciousness is by the proliferation of photography and film of what happened that day. Remember that this was 2001 – only 10 years ago, but it seems like a lifetime. Before Twitter. Before YouTube. Before Facebook. Before Flickr (where the extraordinary image above comes from). And, almost more unbelievably, before smart phones or even decent, affordable digital cameras. Yet it’s hard to imagine how much more documented that morning could have been. The smart phone and mobile internet have become so ubiquitous since then that it’s almost dreadful to think even how much more vivid and ‘real-time’ such an event would be, were it to happen now.

In spite of this, over the past couple of days I’ve still seen images and footage from the day that I hadn’t seen before. I saw Richard Drew’s photographs of the ‘falling man’ for the first time, and some amateur video of the impact of the second plane. There have been numerous documentaries in the press this last week, focussing on photographers who were there, talking about the pictures they took (such as this one from the Guardian). Many of them speak of the ‘illusion of stopping time’ and of photography’s ability to freeze-frame a moment, to allow us to gather our thoughts and make sense of what’s going on.

The shocking photographs of that morning and that day were soon followed by the snapshot photos of thousands of missing people, taped to the walls and fences of Manhattan. Slowly too, they were followed by photographs from inside the towers, blurred snapshots of crowded, dust-choked stairwells and ascending firefighters. In the weeks and months that followed, other photographic responses took shape as well – the This is New York exhibition, and Joel Meyerowitz’s commission from the City of New York to photograph the recovery process, and subsequent reconstruction.

Bur Jason Powell’s photographs (one of which is shown above), produced in collaboration with Michael Foran, offer us a different route back to 9/11. Foran was there on the day; Powell wasn’t. (As he says candidly in the captions accompanying his pictures, he was at home in Virgina, eat breakfast, watching events unfold on the TV). The technique of taking an archive photo and holding it up in front of the camera, in the same location that the archive photo was originally taken, creates a powerful visual effect, interrupting the two-dimensional plane of the photograph as we know it. It’s not especially original – see SleeveFace or DearPhotograph.com for example. But in this context it’s a technique that works horrifyingly well, playing as it does with the conventions of physical space, intervention and memory. As Stephen Shore says, in his ‘primer’ on photography, The Nature of Photographs, “the photographic image turns a piece of paper into a seductive illusion or a moment of truth and beauty”.

By cruel co-incidence, the tenth anniversary of 9/11 also marked the six-month-on point from the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, which struck on 3/11 earlier this year. Here too, photographs are proving to be a powerful totem for memory and hope, in another landscape altered beyond recognition. I was moved this weekend by this film about workers at a factory that makes photographic paper for Fujifilm, volunteering to rescue and conserve photographs recovered from the debris and destruction left behind after the tsunami. In one heart-rending scene, a volunteer points out a handwritten note on the back of a photograph, giving a location and date, then turns the paper over to reveal that the image on the front has been almost completely destroyed; ‘But we should keep this, as it may help to identify other pictures or albums’, he says, slipping the remnant of an image into an acetate sleeve.

Ten years on from 9/11, the world has changed dramatically for sure – geographically, politically, religiously. Photography has changed beyond all recognition too, in terms of technology and its social status. But fortunately it continues to allow us to interpret and interrupt these changes, and gives us a way of slowing them down enough for us to reflect on what they mean.

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About russellphoto

Photographer and video multimedia producer/editor working in international development. Also on Twitter @russellphoto
This entry was posted in digital imaging, media, multimedia, photography, social media, technology and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Looking into the past: the illusion of stopping time

  1. Pingback: 24 posts later: a year of blogging on Developing Pictures | Developing Pictures: photography+development

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