‘After 9/11, even Marxists yearned for the city’s rough, garish world of capitalism to spring back to life’
“We are in a tension between the speed of history—which happens very, very fast—and progress, which happens very, very slowly,” Gilles Peress wrote in 1999. On the morning of September 11th, 2001, history happened fast, and the pace hasn’t let up since. But it was within this calamitous event that, I believe, Peress realized his vision of photography’s democratic possibilities. 9/11 turned out to be a defining moment in Peress’s work, though in indirect and unanticipated ways. And what it showed is that there are no aesthetic answers to the questions he has been posing about photography’s place in the world, only democratic—which is to say, political—ones.
A week after the assaults, Peress and three friends—curator Alice Rose George, photography professor Charles Traub, and writer Michael Shulan—opened a storefront exhibition of photographs, called “Here is New York,” in Manhattan’s Soho neighborhood. The organizers put out an open call for photographs from “anybody and everybody”: not just professional photographers but all the amateurs—all the citizens—who had become documentarians of the city’s crisis on 9/11 and in the strange, unprecedented days that followed. More than five thousand pictures poured in to the exhibition, which displayed them without attribution (photographs by Magnum stars were mixed with those by unknowns). The organizers’ aim was to gather, and show, images that portrayed the array of experiences that we now call, in a kind of shorthand, “9/11.” This meant documenting not just the attacks themselves—captured in those still-breathtaking pictures, taken from so many locations by so many people, of the planes crashing into the towers and the subsequent conflagrations—but all that surrounded them.