Long blog. Apologies. This is a history that doesn’t sum up in a couple of grafs. What I am celebrating here is the resiliency of the photo community, and the welcome partnership of Adorama Camera here in NY. They have stepped up to help me shepherd a collection of pictures stemming from the events of 9/11, and we will collaborate via this blog, education and lectures. Please read on…..
Back in 2001, things weren’t great in the photo biz, I tell ya. It was heavy sledding, trying to get work, staying afloat, keeping the studio running. Little did I know that just around the corner the jalopy known as McNally Photography, a sleek machine with a couple of flats, transmission trouble and a top end of oh, about 22mph, was going to get bulldozed by this event called 9/11, which changed all of our lives, forever. Everything after that day became, “the new normal,” a phrase that grew out of just how thoroughly, absolutely, and irretrievably everything was now different.
Like many NY shooters, I had a love affair with those towers, those twin exclamation points at the end of Manhattan. They were in lots of my pix over the years.
In a moment of youthful exuberance, I actually climbed the antenna on the North Tower.
Then they were gone, replaced by this giant dust cloud of destruction that floated out and settled on all of our shoulders, hearts, minds and spirits. “What to do now?” was the oft repeated question. How to deal with the sadness, the rage, the confusion, the uncertainty? How to make a contribution? On some level, no matter how miniscule?
I’m a photographer. Pictures are what I have to offer. (It’s the only thing I really know how to do.) But I did not go to the streets, like so many of my colleagues. Quite a number of them were already at it, in heroic fashion. I could add very little to what they were doing. I stayed at home, hung with the kids a bit, and stewed. First time out with a camera after the day was to shoot Mike Piazza, then the Mets catcher. SI was doing a piece on how athletes played a role in lifting our hearts and minds.
In 2000, I was assigned to shoot pictures for a very small story (which was never published) on a unique photographic instrument called Moby C, which at the time lived on the lower East Side of NY. Moby after the whale, not the musician. (His birthday is Sept. 11th, l965, by the way. Sept. 11th is also my dad’s birthday, back in 1912.) This camera is the world’s only Giant Polaroid camera, invented at the behest of Dr. Land himself. It is the size of a one car garage. Its lens came from a U2 spy plane, according to legend. At f/45, you have about an inch of depth of field. You cannot focus the lens–you have to focus your subject by moving them back and forth in tiny increments. There is no shutter, you have to work camera obscura at the moment of exposure. I used about 25,000 watt seconds of strobe, mostly run through a 12×12 silk. The strobe system was wired to a Mamiya RZ 6×7 camera, bore sighted under the Polaroid lens. We would pose the subject, then wait for the interior workings of the Polaroid to spool up (there are two technicians inside the camera when you shoot, and they have to prepare things, like switch on a Black and Decker wet dry vac to suck the Polaroid film to the giant backplate of the camera). Then I would go dark in the studio, pull the cap of the Polaroid lens, fire the Mamiya and thus render an instantaneous dupe, one a huge positive, and the other a 6×7 transparency.
Huge indeed. What results after the exposure is a life sized image, 40″x 80″. You lay it out on the floor of the camera, wait 90 seconds (it’s the same Polaroid paper that comes in your over the counter cameras) and then peel the chemical backing off. There you have it.
I had convinced the elegant and easy going Jennifer Ringer, a principal with the NYC Ballet, to come and work with me during this first, experimental day with the camera. We made some nice, big pictures of her. (I was chuckling inside during this shoot, harking back to our old philosophy at LIFE magazine: “If ya can’t make ‘em good, make ‘em big and in color!”)
Made seven successful images that day, which is a lot of production for this behemoth of a camera, and found I had a bit of an affinity for working it. (Try anything once, right? Just have faith and remember the Lord looks after a fool.)
Hmmm. Things stick with you, right? A week after 9/11, I sent an email to the only guy I knew who had a bunch of cash and would give me a quick decision; the editorial director of Time Warner, John Huey. John’s basically an old Southern newspaper man who kind of looks at you sideways, lets you babble, and then tells you what he thinks. He’s smart as a whip, quick off the mark, and does not suffer fools or photographers gladly.
I sent him the email on a Thursday night. He gave me money for the project Monday morning. The pressure was on. He was taking a huge gamble with his company’s dough, $100,000, to be direct about it. He looked me in the eye and drawled, “Joe, you spend $20,000 and get me no pitchahs, that’s okay. You spend $100,000 and get me no pitchahs, we got a problem.” He kind of drew out the word, “prrroblem.” I gulped and left his office.
My notion was that this camera was made for people of stature, a heroic instrument, if you will. You have to literally stand for your portrait. You collect yourself in the dark, holding still, waiting for the strobe explosion. And then you are done. One shot. (90% of our subjects we did in one exposure. Each sheet of Polaroid cost $300. I dreaded blinkers.)
It became a document known as Faces of Ground Zero. It toured through seven stops, opening at Grand Central Station, and coming back to NY a year later. For the anniversary show they threw a huge tent over where they usually put the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center. It was seen by lots of people. The Polaroids and the resultant book(s) helped the sponsors, Time Warner and Morgan Stanley, to donate close to $2 million dollars to the relief of downtown public education. In the tent at the Rock Center show, we sold about $40,000 worth of books in 3 weeks. All of it went to the downtown PTA’s.
It also acquainted me with an extraordinary group of people, many of whom I stay in touch with to this day.
Danny and Joanne Foley. The Foley’s are one of the most giving, decent, loving families I have ever met. A firefighting family. Danny promised his folks he would bring his brother, Tommy, home. Tommy was on Rescue 3, one of the first responders. Eight men were on that truck. None came back. Danny stood for this picture a few days after finding Tommy’s body. In the year after 9/11, he stepped up and took his brother’s place at Rescue 3, in the Bronx.
Joanne, about a year later, at the family farm, with Tommy’s cowboy hat.
Jan Demczur, a Polish window washer who scraped through 6 inches of sheet rock with his squeegee blade and thus saved the 4 people he was trapped in an elevator with. His squeegee is in the Smithsonian.
About a year after, Jan didn’t go outside much, and was living very quietly.
Mike Wernick, who survived the 93 bombing, and 9/11, now retired. His story of the day is powerful and moving. When he came into the Polaroid studio, the shock of it was still on his face.
Mike and his wife Nuri are one of the most loving couples I know. They survived that day quite simply because of that love. Together they run a motorcycle garage in Manhattan called Rising Wolf (one of the only bike garages in NY) and I managed to shoot this from the back of my assistant’s Jeep a couple years ago.
My good friend, Louie Cacchioli. Louie saved a lot of people that day by keeping his head and telling them to follow his light. Out on West St., running from the second collapse, he was overtaken by the cloud of ash and soot. Blinded by the smoke, he felt along the ground and stumbled onto a discarded oxygen mask. He clapped it to his face. He estimates he had about 30 seconds left.
Later that year, he looked at the skyline from the Staten Island ferry.
Years later, he posed for the prototype D3.
I always describe Louie as a firefighting Robert DeNiro. He tends to make women swoon. He’s retired now, and gives lectures and tours at the WTC site. He was the cover of the book (go figure) and it is one of the blessings of my life that having a camera in my hand enabled me to meet this man.
Joe Hodges. A veteran firefighter who could have easily retired after 9/11, but chose to stay on. “The older guys have to stick around and show the younger guys the way,” was how he put it.
Joe works now at at the Governor’s Island house, and I shot this on July 4th a couple of years ago.
I’ve always been convinced the project worked quite simply because it was photographs of a bunch of really, really good people. We had luck, to be sure. The camera never broke down. Good thing, as it really has no spare parts, and is finicky to work at best. Most guest shooters would make, maybe, 5 images or so (you rent the camera on a daily basis, at that time $2000 per day, plus $300 per sheet). There were days (and nights) we pulled over 40 images out the machine. It kept working.
So we kept working. Our last subject was Rudy Giuliani. He finally came on the last night. We were out of money, out of time. We shot 2 Polaroids of hizzoner, and closed the doors.
Things you don’t think about while you are in the throes of a project like this, are, what happens next? When the Rock Center show closed, I became the owner, lock, stock and metal framework, of about 10 tons of photography. (The framed pieces, which form the traveling core of the show, are 4’x9′ and weigh about 300 pounds.) They reside currently in museum quality, climate controlled storage in a warehouse in New Jersey.
That’s a lot of pictures.
That’s also a pretty sizable storage bill every month, which I have handled pretty much on my own for the last 7 years. Sometimes I just shrug and think of it as a second mortgage. Other times, when there has been no work and less grace in this business, it has veered close to breaking the studio. There have been nights I have woken up and simply thought, well, I’ll just get a permit from my buds in the fire department and set the whole thing ablaze and be done with it.
Together with Ellen Price (firstname.lastname@example.org), who is the curator of the collection, and has worked more pro bono hours on its behalf than I can remember, we have plied the hallways of corporations and spoken to many about its survival as an important record of that time. Jan Ramirez, now the Chief Curator & Director of Collections at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, has been a champion of the collection since early on, when she was at the NY Historical Society. Along with Alice Greenwald, the Director of the Museum, they have issued a letter of intent to acquire, which has been a huge blessing. It means that sometime down the road, these pictures will find an appropriate home.
Many powerful people came and spoke powerful words while standing in front of these pictures in the days after 9/11. So powerful, they are not the kind that return the phone calls of a freelance photographer. No surprise there. (Or, I’m sure to any who have made their living over any period of time with a camera. I write occasionally to my alumni magazine at Syracuse, to the section which details the comings, goings and achievements of past graduates. I simply say, “After 35 years, Joe McNally is still jobless, and living around New York City.”) Funny, they’ve never published that.
This was impressed on me even further at the 5th Anniversary of 9/11. We staged the Polaroids again, this time at the NYC Fire Museum. We had no money… not a dime. We made entreaties, asked around as best we could. Nothing. I have a loose affiliation with Getty Pictures, so I wrote to my editor at the time, David Laidler, a good guy, who’s no longer there. Came back with a no. Alright. I’m nothing if not tenacious. I wrote again, more, shall we say, pointedly. Getty coughed up $10k. I chipped in five grand of my own dough, and we had enough to pull off a show.
The crates weigh about 2,000 pounds, and we had no funds for a forklift. So groups of off duty firefighters would come in shifts to pull and haul. I tried helping, but Keith Johnson of Ladder 6 just turned to me and said, “Joe, stay away from the crates. We’re firefighters. We’ve got lifetime disability. What happens if you throw your back out? You’re a freelance photographer. Nobody gives a shit about you.” True enough.
So, they sit now in crates, once again. I spoke recently at Adorama, and had a great, fun audience. I presented a few of the Ground Zero images. Memories of that time are still powerful. Jeff Snyder, who came to Adorama from Penn Camera, and I have been friends a long time. We started talking. He set up a meeting with the administration of the store, which was not held over a conference table the size of a football field on the 60th floor of a midtown tower. We sat in a small room over a camera store. It was like meeting the family. In fact, it was meeting the family. We shook hands. There were no lawyers, no contracts, no clauses with subsections 1 through 17, paragraphs D, E and F.
Adorama now is a partner in helping me keep this collection together and finding it a safe harbor. The people in these pictures trusted me with their images, thoughts and feelings in those tortuous days after 9/11. They made the effort to come to a camera that sounds strange, despite best efforts to describe it over the phone. They have formed their own, informal, emotionally connected community. I owe it to them to see this through. Adorama, will now help me do that.
There’s a reason they call it “the photo community.” Because it is.
Again, many thanks to Jeff Snyder, Monica Cipnic, and all the folks at Adorama.