STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
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You see and hear the words “never forget” a lot this time of year.
Memorials and remembrances honor 9/11. And now, “Aftermath: Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz” at the Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College compels you to take a genuine, long, difficult, emotional look back at the traumatic days, weeks and months that followed the harrowing events of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Joel Meyerowitz is probably — I don’t think many would disagree — the most significant photographer of the 20th century,” said Berman Museum director Charles Stainback. “He’s known for stunningly beautiful photos of Cape Cod.”
A notable departure from his usual subject matter, Meyerowitz sensed the historical significance of the destruction of the World Trade Center and managed to gain unparalleled access to the site in New York City that became known as “Ground Zero” with the 9/11 tragedy. It was seemingly impossible to get anywhere near enough to document what was going on because immediately after the terrorist attacks, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani declared the area to be an active crime scene and ordered it closed to reporters and photojournalists.
Yet Meyerowitz took more than 8,000 images around the 16-acre site where the World Trade Center once stood. He chronicled the transformation (and the accompanying national healing process) from disaster zone to construction site to meditative memorial. Fifty of those pictures are featured in the “Aftermath” exhibit and, Stainback said, are slated to be added to the museum’s permanent collection thanks to gifts from collectors and benefactors of the Berman Museum of Art.
So how did this guy get in?
According to Stainback, Meyerowitz pleaded with the director of the City Museum of New York to pull some strings — to no avail. Undeterred, Meyerowitz found the influential connection he needed through another friend, whose son was in charge of operations at Battery Park in Manhattan. Even after the photographer was allowed past the barricades on Sept. 23, 2001, he had to be mindful to stay out of the way of the official business of rescue personnel, police officers, firefighters and construction workers, Stainback said.
What he saw and shot included mangled metal, shards of broken glass, chaotic cascades of files and papers in still-smoldering piles of debris, spontaneous patriotic memorials and lots of dust; as well as intimate moments of mourning, strength, determination and resilience in the faces of the people that were there.
“He was there for nine months, virtually every day,” said Stainback, describing Meyerowitz’s attire as identical to the rescue workers, even wearing a respirator.
What made him stand out, however, was the large-format view camera he was carrying. “It looks like something out of the 19th century,” Stainback said, “The extreme opposite of a digital point-and-shoot camera.”
Stainback lived in New York 13 years, including during 2001. His brother-in-law was in one of the Twin Towers on 9/11 and escaped unharmed. “It’s one of those anniversaries, like where were you when JFK got shot,” he said. “It seemed to be appropriate to open the exhibition on the 11th.”
Although the documentary approach Meyerowitz used in the “Aftermath” photos is “a totally different sort of project for him, it has the same sensibilities of dramatic image, cropping and use of light,” Stainback said.
A reflective opening reception is held 4 to 7 p.m. Sept. 10, on the eve of the 14th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
IF YOU GO
What: “Aftermath: Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz.”
When: Sept. 11-Dec. 23.
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Where: The Philip and Muriel Berman Museum of Art at Ursinus College, 601 E. Main St., Collegeville.
Info.: Call (610) 409-3500 or visit www.ursinus.edu/berman.