Photographer Joel Meyerowitz
Since September 11th, Joel Meyerowitz has taken over 7000 photographs of Ground Zero. He gained unlimited access to the site and did so in conjunction with the Museum of the City of New York. A selection of those pictures can been seen in the May 20th issue of The New Yorker.
Other segments from the episode on May 15, 2002
DATE May 15, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Joel Meyerowitz discusses his photos of ground zero
which will appear in The New Yorker and in an exhibit
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
The cleanup of ground zero is nearly completed. Only people involved with the
recovery effort have been allowed on the site. But my guest, photographer
Joel Meyerowitz, has been able to get unlimited access to document the
transformation of ground zero. Meyerowitz has joined us a couple of times to
talk about this work. We invited him back to discuss his photos in this
week's New Yorker, spanning from September 23rd through May 1st. His entire
collection will be given to the Museum of the City of New York. The State
Department has sponsored an exhibition of his photos, which toured around the
world. And in August, some of his pictures will be on exhibit in the lobby of
195 Broadway, on the periphery of ground zero.
Well, Joel Meyerowitz, welcome back to FRESH AIR. I'd like to start by asking
you to describe a few of the photos in this week's edition of The New Yorker.
Why don't we start with one of the photos that you took just, you know, at the
end of September?
Mr. JOEL MEYEROWITZ (Photographer): Thanks for having me back again, Terry.
That fold-out picture is a two-part panorama. That was the first night I
spent down at the site, and it was the night that I met the team of detectives
from the arson explosion squad who ultimately became my guardians down there.
And they were so excited by this potential project of mine that they literally
carried my equipment and me up nine flights of stairs to a rooftop of the Dow
Jones building, and there in front of me was this extraordinary image of the
center in heaps piled everywhere with stadium lights on it; mysterious in its
brilliant shine and its dark pockets and smoke coming out of it. And it was a
scene, you know, I couldn't have ever conceived: the amount of damage, the
strewn-about quality, the collapsed, almost elastic look of all of the
metalwork as it draped itself over the building.
In fact, the building in the foreground was a 30-story hotel that had been
reduced to the size of what looks like a couple of buses. And it's just
completely entombed in this metal. I took it in two different parts, trying
to weave it together as a kind of full panorama, because I felt the site
needed this expansiveness to try to comprehend everything that was there.
GROSS: On November 15th, you took a photo inside a day-care center right
across the street from the north tower of the World Trade Center. Tell us
about this photo.
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: The making of it, first, I mean, getting into it was
something that was incredibly scary. Every day, I would pass a flight of
escalator steps that had been frozen at that moment and completely covered in
dust and paper and refuse. And it always beckoned to me. And for some
reason, on this day, I thought, `I'm going up there.' I guess I heard they
were going to tear that building down soon. And I made my way upstairs, and
there, instead of a door, was a huge window that had been destroyed, and in
the window, I saw cribs, lots of infant cribs piled up in a corner, and it was
as if a huge hand had swept them aside, and it probably was the force of the
wind that came roaring through there.
And as I walked through this place, I saw all of the hasty retreat signals
that were left there, like the kids' knapsacks were hanging on the hooks, and
their lunch boxes were in places, everything covered in dust. And then I came
to these little cars lying on the floor, and they looked so much like a scene
you would see from an aerial perspective looking down. In fact, one of them's
an ambulance. If you look at the side, you could see a little red cross in
the shadow there. And I thought, `How strange?' I mean, it's this scale
displacement. Was I on top of a building looking down or am I standing here
looking at something at my feet? And then I noticed in the dust, there were
some masks and there was a little castle cut-out, and there were a few
footprints there, almost the kind of footprints you see when you see NASA
photographs of the moon. Those footprints are left in the dust forever. In
this case, of course, forever was six months, and the building was torn down.
But it just struck me as a kind of miniature of the thing that happened on
GROSS: Another photo of yours in this week's edition of The New Yorker, it's
a column from the south tower, which you say will be the last piece of
building to be removed from the site. Has it been removed already?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: No, no, no. Their plan is that on the last day, when all
else has been carted away and raked clean, this tower, this column will be
taken down, covered in flags, put on a flatbed, and everybody in the site will
accompany it out of the site and take it to--I'm not sure about this--but they
said a barge and send it to wherever it goes. But there's a few stories about
this I think you might be interested in. I was down there the other day, and
since I took this picture, people have come down and written their fire
station numbers on it and their rescue service numbers, etc. And then people
who've lost sons or friends have begun to put their photographs up.
And the other day I was down there, just last week, and I saw one of these
sights that's almost mythic. I saw two men, an older and younger man, walk
into the place--now it's a pit actually--where the column is. And the younger
man got up on a little perch of concrete on the bottom and tried to put a
photograph up, and he got it part way up, but it wasn't high enough for him.
And the old man backed in and knelt down with his back to this guy, and then
pushed him upward on the column. He just used the force of his body as he
began to push against the column and upwards, and he lifted this younger man
up another three feet. And the guy put up the photograph and taped it around
And I ran over to see it, because it looked like this mythic connection of,
you know, two men together. And when they came down, I spoke to them. And
they were a father and a son, both firemen, and they had lost one of the other
family members, another son. And they were putting this up there. And when I
spoke to them, he said to me--this is so strange--`We're lucky. We've found
him.' And you think, you know--I mean, this idea of they were lucky that they
found the body. I mean, they were unlucky that they lost him, but that they
expressed it as luck that they were able to find something to bury. It was so
remarkable. The three of us stood there in tears.
GROSS: The final photo in your collection in The New Yorker this week--your
collection of photos from ground zero--was taken on May 1st when the pile was
pretty level. Would you describe the photo?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes, I went back to the same vantage point that I made that
first photograph on September 25th. I wanted to see what it looked like from
that point of view. And really it's a vast hull now. It's the bathtub, they
call it. And it's almost completely empty. There's a pile of, you know,
rubble that's not steel rubble, but mostly concrete and earth at the north
end. And bit by bit, they're bringing that into these raking fields. They
spread out the rubble about an inch or two thick, and maybe 40 yards long, and
eight or nine firemen walk in with rakes and they comb it. It's just this
incredible scene. And it's the one continuous image that I have of the World
Trade Center recovery. They're still down there, these firemen, leaning on
their rakes like shepherds in a field, a new pile comes and they go and they
scrape away and maybe they'll find a shoe. And you see them--they pick the
shoe up and they sniff the shoe to see if there's any rot and maybe there's a
toe in the shoe that can be analyzed for DNA and somebody will have some, you
know, relief in a sense.
And on Friday I was down there and it was evening, the shift was over, and
they had just laid out a new field and there were no firemen around. And I
made a picture just of this raking field. And into the picture comes a
fireman, and he's heading home. He's got his sack on his back and everything,
but he sees a rake that was laying there, and he picks the rake up. And
instead of going to put it away, he starts raking. It's like he couldn't help
himself. And I walked over to this guy and we talked. His name was Tully
O'Toole(ph). And I said, `It's hard for you to stop,' and he said, `Yeah.'
He said, `That's us. Gardeners in the garden of the dead.'
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: And these men, I mean, so often have a kind of poetic nature
about the work that they're doing. And they do it ceaselessly and with such
devotion because they want to find every last, you know, possible remains so
that when the site is completely shoveled clear, they know that they've done
everything they could possibly do.
GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. We're talking about his
ongoing documentation of ground zero. We'll talk more after a break. This is
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest if photographer Joel Meyerowitz, and he's been documenting
ground zero ever since September. And several of those photos are printed in
The New Yorker this week. His entire collection will be given to the Museum
of the City of New York. And through the museum for about three to six months
he's going to have a show just outside of ground zero at 195 Broadway in the
lobby of the building there. And that will begin probably sometime in August.
Joel, I know like just after September 11th, when we were all watching the
images on TV of the destroyed World Trade Center, it was just impossible to
imagine the site ever being cleared of so much rubble and so much steel.
What's it like for you to look at ground zero now and see it basically
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: It's the strangest feeling, Terry. And I know I'm not alone
because I speak to so many men down there who've been there the whole eight
months. There's a strange feeling of nostalgia. That time in September and
October was a time of incredible commitment on the part of all these
volunteers and workers down there, and the pile was so enormous that to attack
it made you feel as if you were incredibly useful and you were doing something
that was for, you know, the public good. And it had elements of, you know,
heroic effort associated with it. And now there's this emptiness and there
are, you know, trucks buzzing around and getting the last bits of stuff out.
And it does feel like there's a kind of longing for that moment when we were
all brought together to do something that was going to set things right.
GROSS: Have you been to Fresh Kills, the landfill where so much of the rubble
has been taken?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes, I've been out there a few times. And it, too, is an
astonishing collection of things because...
GROSS: This is a huge garbage dump, among the biggest in the world, I think.
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Right.
GROSS: And added to it now is the debris of the World Trade Center. What did
you see there?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: And oddly enough that landfill was closed a year ago by
Mayor Giuliani. We had finally filled it up and this happened and they had
to open it again. And when you go there, it's as if they took the elements of
the site itself and they catalogued them. So it's like a library of images.
Over there are all the fire trucks, 98 of them, stacked up one on top of each
other or next to each other. And then there are the ambulances and the police
cars and the EMS vehicles and private cars. I mean, everything is put in its
place, except periodically you see a crazy juxtaposition. For example, there
was a Rodin sculpture of a standing man--a beautiful famous Rodin sculpture.
The man is standing and he's probably leaned over in a way, so he's made a
gesture--almost a sorrowful gesture--and this was probably in some office.
It's bigger than life. And it was destroyed in the fall of the buildings.
And there was the Rodin sculpture lying on its side, and next to it was a
piece of the airplane.
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: And they were just dumped together as if, you know, metalwork
that's not buses and trucks goes over here. And I came upon it. And I saw
this rotor blade or something circular from the airplane. And next to it was
this lying figure on the ground, almost as if it was sleeping. I mean,
incredibly powerful and strange.
GROSS: Are there many things that you have saved as relics of the World Trade
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes. I have a couple of really astonishing things. I have
a piece of folk art. The welders who were down there--the burners, they're
called--they doodle all the time. When they're not busy cutting things down,
they often find a piece of metal. And they'll doodle drawings in it with the
torch. And I have a piece of the World Trade Center. It's probably 16 inches
long. It's part of an I beam. And the guy has drawn in it the World Trade
Center, both of them, with the antennae and then out of the beam he cut a
gigantic cross, which goes over the World Trade Center. It is a piece of
naive art that is so beautiful in the directness of its making, the immediacy
of its drawing. And I'm going to be giving that to the Museum of the City of
New York and hopefully it will travel with this exhibition.
And the other thing I was given just the very same day I made a photograph of
the column we were talking about before--a fireman came over to me and said,
`Hey, Joel, I think you should have this.' And it was a big piece of metal, I
would say probably close to two feet, and it was oddly shaped, you
know--uneven all the way around, and welded to it by heat and pressure was a
Bible. And the Bible was torn open and pages were missing and it had been
burned and soaked along its side and covered in dirt. It was found six floors
below ground. And the page it was open to was the sermon `an eye for an eye.'
And he said, `I think you should have this,' and he handed it to me. And it's
an artifact, you know, that was seared together in the heat or the pressure.
GROSS: What'd you do with it?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: I dried it out. And I've boxed it up and will ultimately
display it with this exhibition. And there were lots of other things. I
mean, as I went I found nuts and bolts--huge ones--and a gigantic set of keys
that were all mangled, and a piece of the airplane. I have a small piece of
the airplane I was given by somebody. And lots of little things that I have
come up. A workman's bag that has some old tools in it and some pin-ups. I
mean, all crushed and covered in dust, you know. But somehow they have a
poignancy to them because they were ordinary things were, you know, just
ripped out of their surroundings and then buried. You have no idea where they
Oh, and there was one key that I found that had a little slug on the back of
it. And it said, `World Trade Center. Do not duplicate.'
GROSS: Your experiences photographing ground zero must have made you feel so
much closer to New York than you even felt before.
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I feel, I mean, so connected to the outcome of this.
I mean, I really feel like I want to have a hand in it somehow. I've marched
over that site for so many months that I feel I know it intimately and I
would--you know, I wish there was some way I could be part of the
consideration of the development of the site that the...
GROSS: What kind of memorial would you like to see there?
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, one of the things that's come to me, you know, from
this effort of walking around and around the site is the real scale of it.
You know, if you say 16 acres, it's almost hard to imagine what 16 acres is.
But if you walk it, just as an ordinary human being on the street, you get a
sense of the pedestrian scale of it. And I've been thinking that a memorial
might be a forest of perhaps 3,000 trees--one for every victim of the World
Trade Center. In fact, I was thinking if there were 80 people in England,
there should be 80 pine trees come from England, and 60 from Russia or 40 from
Italy, etc., etc. And I think of it as a pine forest meandering through the
site so that it would give off its fragrance and its oxygen and it would be a
living memorial. And that each tree could be assigned a name rather than some
plinth with a name inscribed in it. Wouldn't it be something to have a tree
that you could go to and sit at the foot of, and have that tree represent your
parent, your loved one, so that there was a way of connecting.
And, in fact, there was a map printed in The Times a few months ago. I think
it showed--ghastly as this may seem--the distribution of bodies. It was
wherever they found clusters or individuals, they marked it on a map. And I
was thinking, couldn't that be to some degree the way one would approach this
as a kind of sight work or a conceptual work, planting the trees in the
clusters where they found the bodies so that it moved throughout the site
around whatever buildings were there and created this green space that wasn't
just formalized in a rectangle between two streets but as something that moved
and lived in the space and that marked the drama of the destruction in some
GROSS: Well, Joel Meyerowitz, thanks for talking with us again. And, you
know, thank you for documenting ground zero for us.
Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Thanks for inviting me again, Terry. It's an honor and a
GROSS: Several of Joel Meyerowitz's photographs of ground zero are published
in this week's edition of The New Yorker. His collection will be given to the
Museum of the City of New York. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, the future of ground zero and the New York skyline. We
talk with Paul Goldberger, architecture critic for The New Yorker. And
Maureen Corrigan reviews "Everything is Illuminated," the debut novel by
25-year-old Jonathan Safran Foer.
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Review: New novel "Everything is Illuminated"
TERRY GROSS, host:
"Everything is Illuminated" is the title of the debut novel by Jonathan Safran
Foer. Book critic Maureen Corrigan says the main character of the novel has a
gift for making even the most depleted subjects fresh again through his
skewered way with words.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN reporting:
Jonathan Safran Foer sure has chutzpa. Not only does he write a novel about,
of all daunting subjects, the Holocaust, but he does so in a crazy,
post-modern, patchwork quilt of styles that dares his readers to keep on their
toes from paragraph to paragraph, lest they slip into bewilderment. And get
this: The guy is only 25, and this is his first novel.
Everyone who takes books seriously is talking about "Everything is
Illuminated." Not just because this experimental phenom of a novel was
written by an apparent wunderkind, but because the story Foer tells is
uniquely affecting. There are certainly fictional and historical accounts of
the Holocaust that feature more extraordinary personalities, or even more
appalling acts of barbarism. Foer's novel, however, is the first Holocaust
story I've ever encountered where the technique of the narrative itself is
what's so poignant. As this already chaotic story approaches its climax, its
great illumination, it breaks down into fragments of collective diary entries,
bad jokes, religious textbook mumbo jumbo, editorial corrections, letters and
blank pages. It's as though stylistically Foer's novel is uttering that great
Samuel Beckett line, `I can't go on. I must go on.'
If I'm making Foer sound too melodramatic, let me also add that, like Beckett,
he's irreverent and ironic and serenely brutal as a writer, when he needs to
be. The relatively straightforward, if resolutely non-chronological main
narrative of "Everything is Illuminated" is told by Alex, a very young
Ukrainian man with a slippery grasp of English. Alex is called into service
as a translator when a character named Jonathan Safran Foer shows up at the
travel agency that Alex's father works for. This fictional Jonathan, an
American, asks to be taken to the little town of Trachimbrod in order to find
the woman who saved his grandfather from the Holocaust.
Because the travel agency is short-handed, Alex and Jonathan set out across
the farm plains of the Ukraine, with Alex's own grandfather as their driver,
and his gaseous and drooling dog for protection. The trio finds an impossibly
old woman living near the field that was Trachimbrod. `I am it,' she tells
them, meaning not that she's the savior of Foer's grandfather, but that she
contains the town in boxes of photographs, wedding rings, junk that she
salvaged after Trachimbrod's citizens were murdered by the Nazis. Rooting
around in one of those boxes, she unearths a photograph not of Jonathan's
grandfather, but of Alex's. And therein lies another dreadful wartime tale.
Married to this contemporary Book of Revelations is a more whimsically
grotesque story about the origins and 200-year-old history of Trachimbrod, as
imagined by Jonathan Safran Foer, the character. As you might expect, the
storyline owes much in tone and substance to the work of Jewish magical
realists like Isaac Bashevis Singer. But for all its technicolor
hallucinations about, for instance, a baby who miraculously bubbles up from
her drowned mother's belly, and a mill worker who survives an industrial
accident with a disc saw neatly imbedded in his skull, these old world fables
pale by comparison to Alex's present-time narrative and the wacko vocabulary
that shapes it.
Apologies to Desi Arnaz, but the comic potential in fractured English usually
expires after about two jokes. Here, however, we readers never know whether
Alex is going to hit a funny bone or an unexpected illumination with his
irreverent and unintentionally poetic use of English. In letters to Jonathan,
written after their shared adventure, Alex describes himself as a premium
person who admittedly has been very nomadic with the truth. It's a tribute to
Alex's captivating voice, as well as to Foer's daredevil literary impulses
that we readers pursue the crooked path of Alex's sentences to their bitter,
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "Everything is Illuminated" by Jonathan Safran Foer.
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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