By Edward T. Linenthal
The Landscapes of 9/11: A Photographer's Journey introduces readers to the extraordinary multiyear photographic project of Jonathan Hyman, whose work comprises approximately twenty thousand photographs encompassing a range of American memorial expression in response to the September 11, 2001, attacks. His journey took him to nineteen states and Washington, D.C., over the course of a decade. This book is, however, much more than a selection of his photographs. Hyman takes readers on a most unusual journey, explaining why he undertook this venture, recollecting the aesthetic and logistical issues he faced, and recalling the relationships he formed along the way.
Hyman is a photographer passionately engaged with the dynamic and diverse memorial aftermath of catastrophe. His work reflects a sensitivity both to the diverse landscapes populated by memorial expression and to the personal stories that animated and gave shape to so much of this expression. "I have tried," he explained, "to present the 9/11 memorial response I saw as woven into the fabric of the landscape and indeed the fabric of daily life." Hyman has photographed urban murals; interior and exterior memorials at firehouses; memorial gardens (often accompanied by sculpture); roadside memorials; street signs memorializing an individual; a wide variety of hand-painted and decorated cars and trucks; and houses, trees, and yards bedecked with handmade and factory-produced American flags.
Of particular interest to Hyman were those individuals who chose to imprint on their bodies the memory of 9/11 through tattoos. The act of making oneself a permanent memorial to those murdered speaks powerfully about an evolving memorial culture that not only allows people to be memorialized in novel pictorial ways but also heightens the sense of loss, since individuals have given over—sacrificed—a portion of their body. Hyman worked conscientiously to establish good relationships with people whose body art he wished to photograph. "Sometimes," he recalled, "it took two to three months or more of phone calls and screenings by friends or family members before I could meet and photograph a tattoo subject." Eventually, many people revealed to him what for them was intimate memorial expression and allowed him to capture on camera these revelations of self.
Beyond the years of Hyman's labor and the sheer mass of the archive, what makes this project worthy of a book? After all, 9/11 was a horrific visual spectacle. There are legions of coffee table books capturing the intimate entanglement of horror and allure that is a constitutive component of the visual record of catastrophe. While he was not speaking specifically about photographs, the World War II veteran and academic philosopher J. Glenn Gray called our attention to the "delight in seeing" and the "delight in destruction" he experienced in wartime. We are fascinated, he wrote, with "manifestations of power and magnitude . . . astonishment and awe appear to be part of our deepest being."
Photographers captured the drama of the agony of the World Trade Center towers in New York City, the wounded Pentagon, and, equally eloquently, a single photograph of smoke that offered evidence of the crash of United Flight 93 in a field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania. In New York, professional and amateur photographers captured people escaping from the towers, running through lower Manhattan in search of safety. Photographers recorded the last moments of the lives of firefighters and other responders climbing the tower stairs in search of survivors. They took photographs of other people taking photographs. They photographed people looking at the towers as events unfolded. In "I Took Pictures: September 2001 and Beyond," Marianne Hirsch wrote, "Through photography I can become a witness in my own right, a witness not so much of the event as its aftermath, a witness to the other acts of witness all around me."
Certainly, professional photographers have paid some attention to post-9/11 memorial expression, often focused on the immediate and spontaneous forms that arose in lower Manhattan, at the Pentagon, and in Shanksville. The visual eulogies ("Portraits of Grief") to those murdered in the World Trade Center, published in the New York Times in the weeks after the attack, offered another distinctive form of memorial expression. Jonathan Hyman's project, however, is unmatched in duration and scope. For example, sometimes Hyman returned to previously photographed sites to document the life cycle of images. At one point a wall in a gritty urban neighborhood featured the Flower Power mural, depicting the World Trade Center towers containing or being made of flowers in multiple colors, framed by a luminous cityscape and night sky with red, white, and blue stars. After the passage of several years, however, the same wall was blank, except for three solitary splotches of red, white, and blue. Other murals revealed several "generations" of interpretation, as original images were wholly or partially painted over. These images were overlaid with new symbols or overwritten with new text, resembling visual jazz "riffs" on enduring memorial themes. These successive images are visual time capsules of popular American memorialization.
Hyman's discriminating eye also captured a fascinating range of portrayals of the iconic image of the World Trade Center towers. The sheer number of images in which the towers appear allows readers to appreciate their symbolic malleability. They appear, for example, in vibrant colors, perhaps signifying new life emerging from death; they are black, on fire, smoking, in rubble, appearing as candles, crosses, as if living on in a transcendent realm and transformed into towering firefighters. One of Hyman's photographs shows two such living towers, one holding a baby, clearly evoking the central icon of the Oklahoma City bombing, a photograph of firefighter Chris Fields cradling in his arms the fatally wounded one-year-old Baylee Almon.
Ubiquitous in the aftermath of the attacks, the American flag was no less malleable than the towers. Like anyone who went out in public, Hyman was confronted with flags of all types, many generic, some spectacular in their size and rendering, and still others magnificent in their inventiveness. The flag has been used variously in the public response to the attacks by people from all political points of view. In fact, Jonathan's own mother-in-law turned down a photograph that he had gifted to her because it featured a hand-painted flag that was used by others in a manner she disliked. Given the flag's symbolic polyvalence, each contributor to this volume considers the varied meanings of the American flag, its uses in a political context, its cultural inflections, and its strategic application to different places and surfaces.
I first met Jonathan Hyman in the spring of 2006, when Steve Frank, vice president of Education and Exhibitions at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, invited me to participate in a day-long meeting to select some of Hyman's photographs and write some brief text panels for the center's five-year anniversary exhibition of Hyman's work, 9/11: A Nation Remembers, which ran from September 8, 2006, through January 1, 2007. It had been approximately five years since my book, The Unfinished Bombing: Oklahoma City in American Memory, had been published, virtually on the eve of the 9/11 attacks. Because of this book, I was drawn inexorably into post-9/11 memorial conversation. In December 2001, I joined several friends from Oklahoma City—the attorney Robert Johnson, who for many years directed the memorial project, and Phillip Thompson, whose mother's remains could not be recovered from the wreckage of the Alfred P. Murrah Building for five weeks—to speak at a town meeting at Shanksville High School, not far from where the passengers and crew of United Flight 93 brought down the hijacked plane in western Pennsylvania. Approximately a year and a half after that meeting, I organized a three-day seminar in Oklahoma City for family members of those killed on Flight 93, along with others already active in memorial planning in the Somerset/Shanksville, Pennsylvania, area. Shortly after that, I accepted an invitation to serve as a member of the Flight 93 National Memorial Federal Advisory Commission. By the time Steve Frank invited me to Philadelphia, I was immersed in and intrigued by the complexity of 9/11 memorial expression. When I joined Steve and Jonathan at the center, I was stunned by the rich world of memorial culture captured in Jonathan's photographs.
The authors of the essays in this book ponder the significance of Hyman's work through a diverse engagement with visual culture. Jan Seidler Ramirez, chief curator and director of collections at the National September 11 Memorial & Museum in New York City, has tracked Hyman's work since shortly after the event, and she believes that his photographs "are invaluable because they preserve a baseline of the nation's memorial fervor before a professionalized design process began to coalesce around the permanent National September 11 Monument & Museum." Understanding Hyman as a singular figure among the "second responders" to 9/11, Ramirez explains that Hyman's photographs served as visual referents to the many sensitive issues that confronted the museum staff in shaping the museum's presentation. "For almost every topic weighting our interpretive discussions at particular junctures," she writes, "his picture library could be relied on to offer visual correlatives addressing these same issues or arguments, often at their formative stages."
Archival memory can only contain what is noticed, what is remembered. No matter how diligent Jonathan Hyman was, he could not capture what was for many too painful to record. However, as Ramirez notes, he did find and choose to photograph a rare mural representation of someone forced to leap from the towers. Even though such photographs depict one of the horrific realities of that morning, there remains for many an enduring concern that the integrity to "tell all and show all" can fuel a popular hunger for the spectacle of graphic violence. "Hyman's choice to eternalize the content of this mural," Ramirez wrote, "parallels the rationalizations and instincts influencing those who opted to preserve visual witness of these ineffable final moments." And the larger issue of what the memorial expression preserved by Hyman recalls and ignores is an important one. Components of visual culture can certainly soften or sanitize. Perhaps it is unrealistic to expect such popular images to do more than express widely comprehensible and easily digestible memorial forms.
The next essay, by Charles Brock, associate curator of American and British paintings at the National Gallery of Art, situates Hyman's work in a historical context that goes far beyond the visual culture of contemporary catastrophe. The "documentary impulse" evident in Hyman's endeavor is deeply rooted in similar projects, Brock observes, for the "mixing of artistic pursuits with the more scientific, academic accumulation and organization of knowledge has been part and parcel of American culture since at least the time of Charles Willson Peale." Hyman's archive reminds Brock of the post–Civil War photography of Alexander Gardner, of Jacob Riis's shocking photographs of urban poverty in the late nineteenth century, of the photographs of New York City taken by Berenice Abbott in the 1930s, of the thousands of images of American folk culture gathered by the Works Progress Administration's Federal Art Project, and of the "nuclear-age atmosphere and revelatory qualities" of the photography of Robert Frank. For Brock, Hyman's photographs captured "transience and metamorphosis: buildings, bodies, flags, and eagles constantly meld and shift their identities." Hyman's archive, he believes, is invaluable for tracking changes and continuities in 9/11 aesthetic commemorative sensibilities.
Northwestern University's Robert Hariman and Indiana University's John Louis Lucaites, leading figures in the study of rhetoric and public culture, address the poverty and promise of vernacular expression and the instability of memory, arguing that the visual evidence in Hyman's photographs reveals a "limited repertoire of signs, marginal spaces, processes of decay, and a lack of cultural resonance." They are less confident than Hyman that there is much of a public conversation emerging from these vernacular images. They also worry that this memorial vocabulary is often made up of kitsch—"cheap imitation of stock images for sentimental appeal"—that is incapable of challenging viewers into more profound engagement through visual imagery. The iconography, they write, "comes almost entirely from the state or the entertainment industry, and the political sentiments run the gamut from A to B—more specifically, from patriotism to vengeance." At best, they think it an open question whether such a limited memorial vocabulary can play a meaningful role in processes of civic restoration.
Their essay engenders important questions: Is some of the value of Hyman's archive not in its documentation of a rich, vibrant memorial culture, but in its documentation of an impoverished culture, at its worst nurturing limitless rage and increasing body counts of innocents here and around the world? And is it the case that, for example, the presence of the Flower Power mural suggests that the memorial vocabulary is somewhat more diverse than Hariman and Lucaites allow? Does the presence of popular culture superheroes indicate the triumph of kitsch, or is their use as appropriate as the use of an eagle? Perhaps the more traditional, publicly situated memorial shrines present in Hyman's photographs serve, as Jack Santino argues, to "insert and insist upon the presence of absent people," restoring the dead "back into the fabric of society, into the middle of areas of commerce and travel, into everyday life as it is being lived," and serve mainly as temporary cries from the heart of the bereaved, soon to be as invisible as any other part of the everyday landscape.
Of course, investigations into the cultural functions of memorial culture transcend the boundaries of the United States. The final two essays, by filmmaker and photojournalist Philip Hopper and art historian Christiane Gruber, respectively, use some of Hyman's photographs to recall their own explorations in memorial visual culture in Northern Ireland, the Palestinian West Bank, and Iran. Hyman's work helped Hopper think about tensions between official national narratives of "heroism, martyrdom, and victimhood" and vernacular images in Belfast, Bethlehem, and the Palestinian refugee camp at Dheisheh. He notes the power of visual culture to alter the terms through which someone experiences space and place as an "insider," or perhaps alienated by an assaultive message, and he argues that some of the murals at these sites are more open to revision than what he sees as the mostly stable 9/11 memorial images in Hyman's photographs. Whether stable or subject to revision, however, how can we know if or how these memorials change the terms through which passersby experience space? When people walk by a building with a mural of a plane crashing into the building's wall, or when they walk by the image of an angry American eagle seemingly staring at them, what is the impact? Does the first transport passersby into the horror of the murderous moment, helping them to "never forget"—as the mural's message instructs? If so, what are they not supposed to forget? The object of memory could be the attack, heroic acts of rescue, or their own personal experiences of the aftermath, which could vary widely depending on, for example, how "American" they looked. Perhaps the eagle comes alive in satisfyingly vengeful ways as reports of other terrorist attacks are made public, or during particularly charged times of U.S. military engagement in Iraq and Afghanistan. Or perhaps the eagle's gaze seems threatening to American immigrants from countries looked upon with suspicion. In either case, the presence of people in these photographs reminds readers that it is only through individual engagement with these images that their diverse meanings are active, come alive.
The dynamic and potent life of visual culture is dramatically evident in Christiane Gruber's stunning images of Iranian murals relating to the Iranian Revolution (1979) and the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). These murals, many of which are made available here for the first time to an American audience, often use images of the American flag and eagle that offer an oppositional reading to their use in American memorial expression. And yet even such clashing messages are dependent on each other in an often harsh battle to own and deploy evocative symbols. For Gruber, the work of comparison reveals more than strategic positioning and repositioning of symbolic resources. It also demonstrates that the "visual cultures of war and trauma share an alluring array of thematic correspondences that reveal to us the various ways that humans—regardless of their national, cultural, and religious affiliations—can express a range of emotion by means of a visual language based on commonality rather than difference." For example, she observes, memorial expression in both countries encompasses nationalistic fervor, vulnerability and fear, hope and transformation. Such comparison can, she believes, "encourage us to look at the other with the grace and humanity with which we ourselves would like to be looked upon."
Both Hopper's and Gruber's studies point to the potential of using Hyman's archive in the service of comparative projects. Whether or not such explorations will lead us inexorably to a more humane vision of those treated as enemies is, I think, an open question. Possibly, more intimate knowledge of "enemies" could lead to a more profound hatred of them, and their defilement of, for example, sacred symbols of the flag and the eagle. And yet the categories of enemy, friend, or betwixt and between are often fluid, as we know from the immediate aftermath of World War II. And we know that meetings between American veterans of the Vietnam War and Russian veterans of the war in Afghanistan led to mutual recognition of suffering and service in controversial wars of choice. Like a double-edged sword, visual culture can contribute to both murderous and humane engagement with those categorized as "enemy."
While not speaking directly to all aspects of the visual imagery contained in Hyman's archive, the novelist Ariel Dorfman wrote movingly of how the photographs and personalized notices of the dead and missing that populated Manhattan immediately after 9/11 reminded him of how women in many countries—"from Chile to Kurdistan, from Argentina to Ethiopia, from Guatemala to Guinea"—stand in public with photos of missing sons and husbands who were murdered, often in acts of state-sponsored terrorism. Dorfman hoped that in the wake of 9/11, "the inhabitants of the most modernized society in the world may now be able to connect, in ways that would be unthinkable before September 11, 2001, to the experience of so many hitherto inaccessible planetary others." The "challenge of the moment," Dorfman writes, is "to find ways to make this new global tragedy draw us all closer to each other, not because we can now kill one another more easily and with more devastating effects, but closer because we share the same need to mourn, the same flesh that can be torn, the same impulse toward compassion." Ideally, Jonathan's project presents us with the opportunity to cultivate this impulse.
Shortly after meeting Jonathan and viewing several hundred of his photographs, it was clear to me that there was an important book to be done not only to introduce some of his massive collection of photographs to a wide audience but also to share the compelling story of his journey to produce this archive. As a first step toward such a book, I invited him to write an essay for a roundtable discussion we created for the Journal of American History entitled "American Faces: Twentieth-Century Photographs." His essay, "The Public Face of 9/11: Memory and Portraiture in the Landscape," appeared in the journal's June 2007 issue. In ongoing conversations with Jonathan, I was surprised to learn that some publishers had been uncomfortable with his photographs, finding some of them too "in your face," too gritty and angry for a book of memorial photographs. However, when I shared some of Jonathan's work with my friend and colleague Christiane Gruber, she immediately grasped the importance of Hyman's work, and led all of us to the University of Texas Press.
Jonathan, Christiane, and I are delighted that the press has generously presented some of Jonathan's work in color, and that a group of distinguished colleagues agreed to write interpretive essays for this book. However, other challenges await. The photographs in this book represent, after all, only a select few from Hyman's collection of approximately twenty thousand photographs. This archive needs to be housed and preserved in an appropriate institution. We hope that the story of the archive has as happy an ending as the one that resulted in this book.