Kodak Moments, Flashbulb Memories: Reflections on 9/11
And the victims. On the exterior wall of Ray's Pizza at 6th Avenue and 11th Street - near St. Vincent's where the injured, what few there are at this point, are taken - is a mass of Missing Persons posters, handwritten or glossy computer printouts with photos. Personal numbers we should call if we have any information as to the whereabouts of so-and-so in Building 1 or 2, clothing, dental work, tattoo, wedding ring, children. What floor they were on. We've seen too many images of people jumping from the floors here mentioned, 105 and the like, to harbor the same hope as these posters. Over 4,500 unaccounted for at this point, says the radio playing nearby. A joyous rumor overheard that five firefighters walked free from rumble is sadly discounted by the time I get home. For this moment, we search these faces for someone we know, thankful that we don't, still equally stunned.
8. Memorial wall by graffiti artist Chico, on Avenue A at 14th Street, lower Manhattan. Chico, a celebrated graffiti artist who lives on the Lower East Side, immediately painted this memorial wall to honor the victims of the attack. Neighbors spontaneously brought candles, flowers, pictures, toys, and religious icons to the wall and gathered there to pay their respects
to the dead (14 September 2001). (Photo by Barbara Kirshenblatt- Gimblett)
Within about a week of the attacks, outdoor shrines were discouraged, if not prohibited, and photographs and exhibitions of them became shrines in their own right. Shrines at Union Square were removed on 19 September because of a rain forecast, according to Jane Rudolph, spokesperson for New York City’s Department of Parks and Recreation. She explained that the memorials that could be salvaged were being saved until such time as museums and other institutions determined what should be done with them (in Jensen 2001). Shrines, candles, and missing posters that appeared after 19 September were also removed after a short time, due in part to safety issues (candle wax is slippery, accumulation of debris) and plans to clean and renovate the area. By June 2002, the Department of Transportation had posted notices at Ground Zero stating that memorabilia would be removed daily.
9. Union Square, which starts at 14th Street, the line that demarcated the frozen zone, became the focal point for spontaneous gatherings, vigils, and memorials (14 September 2001). (Photo by Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett)
New York City museums feel a special responsibility to deal with the disaster and its aftermath now and for the future. Besides delaying or revising exhibitions, some, like the New-York Historical Society, also created new ones such as 'Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning,' which featured actual memorials, as well as documentation of the many shrines that had sprung up all over the city. The exhibition, based on the work of Martha Cooper, who has been photographing vernacular New York for some 30 years, was organized by City Lore: New York Center for Urban Folk Culture at the New-York Historical Society. Missing became a memorial in its own right, as did the exhibition, in an adjoining gallery, on the history of the World Trade Center created by the Skyscraper Museum before 9/11.
Newsweek photographer Bill Biggart died while photographing the attack. Although all his clothing, belongings, three cameras, and seven rolls of exposed film were found, the most vivid indication “that he’d been at the scene of one of the world’s great conflagrations was a burned edge on his press card” (Adler 2001).
the Library of Congress, in collaboration with the Internet Archive and webArchivist.org, began collecting web sites within hours of the attack and launched http://september11.archive.org, a site that now contains 5 terabytes of data and is still growing.
Just as there is anxiety about taking photographs and flocking to the disaster site—this behavior has been compared to ambulance chasing and rubbernecking at car crashes—there is uneasiness about collecting the remains of a disaster before the body is cold. These issues have been raised with respect to Missing: Last Seen at the World Trade Center, September 11, 2001, an exhibition featuring between 175 and 210 fliers of missing persons that has been traveling around the United States ( Jones 2002). An estimated 500 to 700 families created and posted about 100,000 fliers. Rumors that victims were lying unconscious and unidentified in hospitals or wandering around in a daze near the disaster site prompted some to post as many as 500 or even 1,000 copies of a single flier. Louis Nevaer collected and saved more than 400 different posters. He was assisted by the National Guardsmen at the Armory, whose outer walls were covered with fliers. The Armory housed the Family Assistance Center. A writer, editor, and activist, Nevaer received some financial support for the exhibition from the Mesoamerica Foundation, a Mexican nonprofit organization for which he worked.
Reporting on the exhibition at the Artists’ Museum in Washington, DC, which coincided with the six-month anniversary of 9/11, Garance Franke-Rutawas disturbed by what she characterized as a “jarring, tasteless presentation of some of September 11’s most powerful fragments” (Franke-Ruta 2002). While she admired Nevaer’s intentions—to provide an opportunity for the people outside New York to know, mourn, and honor those who died—she questioned the way the exhibition was installed. First, she objected to the anesthetization of the fliers: only the colored ones were shown (the black-and-white ones were considered less compelling) and the fliers were framed. Second, such material deserved a more prestigious venue than the “middlebrow” Artists’ Museum. Third, “the show’s March 8 opening struck an offensively irreverent tone: Gallery-goers wandered amidst the posters drinking glasses of chardonnay while live jazz music thrummed in the background from a band playing in another gallery down the hall” (Franke- Ruta 2002).8 Having been in New York when the fliers covered the walls of the city, Franke-Ruta was painfully aware of the inadequacy of the gallery installation, even though it did include photographs of the fliers in situ and condolence books. What this exhibition missed was attention to what Jan Ramirez, director of the New-York Historical Society, called “a threshold experience from a design perspective,” which the Society’s Missing: Streetscape of a City in Mourning sought to address. Some families “weren’t ready to have their loved ones historicized so quickly,” according to Ramirez (in Franke-Ruta 2002). One way that the New-York Historical Society’s Missing exhibition addressed this problem was to display photographs of posters and memorials in context, and to bring elements from shrines—and in some cases the shrine itself, with missing fliers still attached—into the gallery. There were refreshments at the opening, but they were served in a hallway, not in the galleries themselves. As was the case with the Here Is New York and Exit Art installations, the photographs were deliberately not framed. As a result, the installation felt more like the street than an art gallery, in keeping with its character as a memorial in its own right. As Maya Lin noted, any effort to re-create “the magic of the makeshift” would produce “a totally different experience,” because the power of these self-organizing memorial efforts lies in the “spontaneity of raw, pure emotion” (Lin 2002).
The Museum of the City of New York has even added the “Wall of Prayer” to its collection. This spontaneous assemblage of images and messages on a construction site fence was located at one of the entrances to Bellevue Hospital. This kind of collecting is more like the time capsule—items from the present in anticipation of the future—than an archeological record, though archeologists were vital to the forensic effort while Ground Zero remained a crime scene; that evidence will become part of the historical record as well.