All 911’s are strange now, but this one was particularly odd for me. I was in the air early in the morning, flying back to NYC. Clear and cool. Just like that Tuesday years ago. Manhattan was laid out in hard, shadowed relief. Still can’t get used to the missing piece of the skyline. Went from the airport to Ladder 9 on Great Jones St. It is where I have gone every 911 morning for 9 years. Saw John Baldassare, the first NY firefighter to step in front of the giant Polaroid camera. His was the first portrait in a project that came to be known as Faces of Ground Zero.
Checked in with a few of “the guys.” Louie Cacchioli called. He and his DeNiro-like good looks were the cover of the book, and the face of the project. Talked, caught up. Promised to see each other soon. He’s working on a book, his life story. It’s a story worth telling.
And spoke with Joanne Foley Gross, as I generally do around this time. The Foley’s are a fire fighting family. Fathers, husbands, brothers, brothers-in-law. Good people. I got to know them, just a bit, in those days after 911.
For me, doing someone’s portrait is an exchange of gifts. The subject extends the gift of vulnerability and trust by getting in front of this unflinching machine with a big glass eye. Photographers extend also, expressly or tacitly, a reciprocal gift. The shutter sound is not just a click that allows light to hit a sensor. Those clicks are a language–photog speak, Morse Code, drumbeats–call it what you will. With every exposure, you are saying, “I will take care. I will do my best. I will reward the trust.”
The whir and click of a camera is actually the sound of tumblers falling. Something has just been locked in time.
Sadly, I never got a chance to do a portrait of Tommy, Joanne’s brother. Tommy was a lot more than a firefighter, though, to be honest, that’s plenty enough to be. He was a bull rider at the rodeo, a football player, and, as a lark, a model. He posed for a “Firefighter Hunks” calendar, and was so damn good looking he made the cover of People, right up there with George Clooney, as one of world’s hundred most eligible bachelors.
When the WTC call came in at Rescue 3, “Big Blue,” up in the Bronx, 8 men got on the truck. None came back. The rescue truck crews are among the most highly trained firefighters, often the first responders. On 911 morning, the rescue companies took a hard hit.
Danny Foley, Tommy’s brother and a firefighter, rushed to the scene with Joanne’s firefighter husband K.C., desperately searching for Tommy. As Joanne said, “They called me and said Tommy was missing. I said, ‘No! He’s helping.’ They went every day to search for him. Every morning it was like sending them off to war. This is his cowboy hat. He loved it, loved rodeos. Tommy lived life.”
In those emotional days after 911, when the skies were still full of smoke, Joanne came to the Giant Polaroid studio on East 2nd St. for her portrait. I was amazed and grateful. I had assured her it wouldn’t take long, and it didn’t. Indeed, this was the only Polaroid I shot. The camera is so enormous, it doesn’t lend itself to fast frames. The subject has to collect themselves, and stand quietly, while I focused them, not the camera. The camera is the size of a one car garage. There are two people inside of it, looking at the inverted image of the subject and calling out to me on radio, “Please move the subject back two inches.” Then the person has to stand there, still, while the camera is prepped, which generally takes about 30 seconds. They can’t waver. At f45, the camera has about a half inch of depth of field. Then, the studio would go black, and I’d pull a cap off the enormous lens, and hit a plunger wired to a Mamiya 6×7 camera. That would fire about 35,000 watt seconds of flash. The result would be a Giant Polaroid, and an identical frame of 6×7 film.
During all the camera work, Joanne, standing, alone with Tommy’s hat and helmet, having just met me, confronting this huge contraption, began to weep. The person in me fought with the photographer in me. Stand down! Let her compose herself! Shoot the picture! I closed the lights. Started to cry in the dark. Hit the shutter. It was New York just after 911. It was a time for tears.
Joanne is one of the most decent, giving people I’ve ever met. We talked of this frame later. She looked at me and told me that taking the picture was the right thing to do. She gave me absolution, really. It is a gift I will never be able to repay.
Danny came to the camera as well. He and K.C. found Tommy’s body on Sept. 21. He said, “First day, I searched 36 hours. I had a hard time calling home. When I spoke to my father, I promised him, one way or another, I’d find Tommy and bring him home.”
About a year after 911, I caught up with Joanne and Danny again. Danny had taken Tommy’s place at Rescue 3.
I took Joanne’s picture, again, with Tommy’s hat, on their family porch.
The Foley’s are like any other family, in many ways. They live, they laugh, they cry, and they endure. They have a wonderful home way north of the canyons of Manhattan, where animals abound. I can attest to this, as I once tried to wrestle Jack the donkey into a photograph with Joanne. Danny has three beautiful young girls, so as the father of two girls myself, I’ll say a Novena for him. K.C. had to retire with lung damage after all the work at WTC. He and Joanne have three kids. Every year, as a family, they make the emotional pilgrimage to the site, and participate in the reading of the names.
And, typical of Joanne, she has thrown herself into commemorating Tommy. There is a website up, http://www.firefighterthomasjfoley.com/, and a scholarship. It is just the beginning. Over the last two years she has amassed 80 interviews with family and friends of Tommy, and collected 344 pieces of video, as well as thousands of photos. But some crucial footage is evidently missing. NBC has important “B roll” footage of Tommy, and Joanne has been trying, repeatedly and in vain, to gain access to it. Anybody out there have any pull with NBC? Anybody who could talk to somebody who could talk to somebody?
Time flies. Every year, Joanne and I talk here and there, and always around 911 day. I struggle with the call, the same way I struggled with the shutter all those years ago. We intersected because of this awful loss, and my voice on the line is surely another reminder. But I make the call, and I’m always glad I do. Talking with her, and so many folks I stay in touch with from that tough, tough time reminds me again of the job we have–to make the picture and stay the course. In the click of the shutter and the flash of light, there is remembrance. More tk….