"At the same time that the Twin Towers were falling, there were people having toothaches."
I wanted to get Melanie on the radio show this week, but we ended up too squeezed for time and it didn’t work out. However, when I spoke to her on the phone she mentioned that the writer Luc Sante had been moved by her photo as well, he'd even asked her for a print. I decided to call him to find out what it is about this picture, exactly.
What drew you to the photo?
One of the things about it is that while it’s not like the Zelig figure exactly, it’s not unrelated to it. You have this historical moment occurring and there’s somebody in a corner of the picture who’s paying no attention whatsover. Looking at his watch as the zeppelin plows into the skyscraper. This postman going about his rounds completely unaware of the conflagration going on a few blocks down and above his head. It’s such an amazing picture – the fact that it exists, that that moment was recorded. It's one for the ages.
When I spoke to Melanie, she said that she waited a few years after the attacks to release the photo, and even then, she published it in a quiet way. She said she was worried the photo could offend people, or that it would be misinterpreted. What do you think she meant?
I can understand her decision not to publish it right away. It would have been attacked as being insufficiently attentive to the enormity of the day. It would have seemed irreverent. When something of that magnitude happens, everything seems to be in service of awe, shock, reverence – reaffirming basic values, casting out demons. Something that includes such a violent contradiction within its depiction of the event – it just feels wrong. People wouldn’t have been able to take it in right away.
Melanie is such a quick visual thinker that her eye is operating as a remote sensor far away from her intellectual brain. But at the time it wouldn’t have made any sense. Everybody was reeling.
Minutes after that picture was taken, you had all those people on Church street with vast clouds of debris pursuing them like a movie monster. Melanie’s photo argues in favor of there being more than one truth. There is a way of seeing this event as occurring in the middle of an ordinary day. At the same time that the twin towers were falling, there were people having toothaches. At the time you couldn’t give that credence – the enormity, the magnitude of the catastrophe seemed to crowd everything but itself out of the picture of life. Here you have evidence of that very simultaneity.
I think that for a lot of people, there’s a kind of agreed upon series of pictures that represent September 11th in their mind’s eye. Can you give me a quick run-down of what those images are?
You see the images of the planes approaching the towers, the towers bursting into flames, the towers toppling, the clouds of debris and the people running, the hordes over the Brooklyn bridge. And then the soot-covered firefighters.
How is it that everyone agrees on a visual narrative so quickly, on pretty much the same set of images?
The thinking is done for us. The media processes these things. We come to recognize those images. On 9/11 itself, I was living in the country. I didn’t see TV until that evening. I went to a pizzeria to pick up a pizza, and just while I was waiting I saw the 5 or 6 images we’re talking about. It was literally the same strips of film being re-run again and again. I saw that series of pictures three dozen times in the time it took for my pizza to come out of the oven.
And that’s how it was for everyone, unless you were actually there, watching from a rooftop or across the river. Then you might’ve seen things that you know were different from what was retold by the media to the rest of the world. But if you were watching on TV or in newspapers – there wasn’t so much on the web back then – chances are you had your range of imagery preselected for you. So it would take quite an exercise of imagination for you to imagine any kind of alternative.
So besides the fact that it's a photo that is memorable and isn't one of those pre-selected images, what’s the value of Melanie’s photo?
The photo's value isn't news value. But we can be certain that it tells us something – it tells us that life went on,life took a minute before it noticed what was happening. It does tell us this.
It also wasn’t a picture for the time. It’s a picture for reflection. The irony it contains (which is not irony ha-ha, it’s a deeper human reflective irony) is something that can only be contemplated at some remove. So I think that future generations will already be familiar with the major stock of images – the 5 or 6 that we talked about. They will have those just built into their mental archives, the way we have the Zapruder film or whatever, but that this is the picture that just puts an additional meditative layer upon all of that.