Chaos and Pathos Captured in Images

Posted on 02 September 2011

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By Emily J. Weitz

We all remember where we were the moment the towers were hit. John Jonas Gruen was in the heart of Manhattan, and when he saw the black smoke filling the sky, he ran with his camera around his neck right to Ground Zero, which wasn’t called Ground Zero back then. He began to snap images, as if in a trance. He captured the chaos and the heroism of that day, as firefighters poured into the buildings before they collapsed.

In the days and weeks that followed, he continued to take photos of the desperate searches for loved ones, of the humanity that shone through the chaos. Then, he took those images — about a hundred in all — and he put them in a box and left them there. They’ve been sitting there for ten years, and they are about to go up on the walls of East Hampton’s Guild Hall in honor of the lives lost and irreversibly changed.

The potency of these images required that Gruen be very careful with when, where and how they would be shown.

“I knew this was not something I just wanted to send out into the world,” Gruen says. “It had to be a real occasion.”

The ten year anniversary seemed like the right time, and because of his love for Guild Hall, Gruen thought it would be the right place. Christina Mossaides Strassfield, curator at Guild Hall, took one look at his images and agreed. She selected 24 images from the 100, and this exhibit will be the first time they’ll be on display.

Gruen is a photographer who has gained attention predominantly for his portraits, which were on display at the Whitney last year. Art historian Justin Spring noted that “John Jonas Gruen has made it his business to be in the right place at the right time.”

In this way he has taken photographs of contemporary cultural figures from dancers to playwrights, poets to painters. Being in the right place at the right time is a complicated way to think of Gruen’s presence in downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. But because of it, the public will have the opportunity to look at the raw snapshots of that time with well rested eyes.

An exhibit like this requires great sensitivity. Even though Gruen is the person who took these photos, in a way they belong to all of us, and they mean something different to everyone. Everyone owns a piece of this tragedy, in that everyone was affected by it. When Gruen discusses the process of taking these pictures, it’s different than speaking to an artist about his or her daily work in the studio. This is art but it’s also something else. Gruen understands that.

“I want to tell you,” he says, his voice near desperate with emotion, “I was so moved and upset by the idea of nearly 3,000 perishing in both of those buildings. It broke my heart. These photos of what happened and what happened after: posters of families looking for their relatives. Images of posters written by children with crayons saying ‘We’re looking for my daddy. He’s got blonde hair and blue eyes. Has anybody seen him?’ That’s in the show.”

Gruen speaks of the tragedies, but also the extreme bravery he saw in those days. He took photos of “the unbelievable fire fighters who went to save people, many of whom perished. All over New York there were the fire and ladder companies with memorials set up, showing the guys who died with flowers and notes. You have to see the pictures.”

It is because of Gruen’s presence of mind and his empathy that these images are so powerful. He wasn’t an observer trying to document something. He was in it.

“When I took these photos, I was really moved,” he says. “There was a kind of numbness in my heart. There’s one image of a prayer center they set up in Central Park where people could just come and stand and pray and look into themselves and go deep into their emotions about this terrible event.”

Even though these images will make you cry, there is an underlying current of hope in them, as can be heard in Gruen’s voice when he speaks.

“That morning people got up to go to work in these beautiful, glamorous buildings which were a part of the New York skyline,” he says sadly, “and all of a sudden they found themselves trapped… Who knows what is going to happen in life? I thought this exhibition might make people realize the one fundamental thing that we all have in common is our humanity. When we are faced with this kind of tragedy what we must do is get closer to one another and love each other more.”

The Twin Towers Tragedy Exhibition will be on display at Guild Hall from Saturday, September 3 through Sunday, October 9 in the Boots Lamb Education Center. The opening reception will be held on Saturday, September 3 from 4 to 6 p.m.

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