'A Terrible Beauty' 

Many of the pictures are certain to make a viewer shudder, and their cumulative effect is haunting. They are also quite beautiful. "Everyone who sees them for the first time remarks on their beauty," says writer turned photo-archivist Michael Shulan. "But it is a terrible beauty, borne of fire, dust and death."

Shulan is one of four Manhattan friends, who in their grief at the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, quickly came up with a way for New Yorkers to react to and cope with the tragedy. They put out a public call for photos, to which amateur shutterbugs and professional artists alike responded in large numbers. For most of the contributors and viewers, the resulting populist exhibit, "here is new york: a democracy of photographs," has provided an emotional catharsis.

More than 300,000 New Yorkers stood in line to see the snapshots of their city and its people, almost all taken during the first 24 hours of the crisis. "It seems that everyone had a camera with them that day," says Shulan of the 4,000 images donated to the exhibit. All have been digitally scanned and archivally printed; most have been hung without frames -- suspended from floor-to-ceiling wires -- at a small storefront Shulan owns on Prince Street in Soho.

As word of the power of the images spread, an online catalog of the exhibition (hereisnewyork.org) began receiving hits from throughout the world, recently passing the 100-million mark. But Central Floridians will be among the first outside of New York to experience the artwork first hand, as the Southeast Museum of Photography at Daytona Beach Community College mounts a selection of 500 of the pictures, to be displayed from Friday, Feb. 22, through May 27.

Landing the exhibit so quickly is a coup for the museum, particularly considering that the only other venues granted rights to display the photography thus far are the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs and the city of Berlin, Germany, where a similar show opens later this month. But Kevin Miller, the Daytona museum's acting director, says it was little more than a matter of ask-and-you-will-receive. "I was in New York with a class in October," he says. "We saw [the exhibit] and I realized how compelling the experience was for everybody there. This was not your typical photojournalism show."

Miller, who heads his college's visual-arts department, describes the collection as a series of "personal-document experiences by participants and witnesses of the most epoch-marking event in recent history." It adds up, he says, to the "most significant photography exhibition in a generation, rather akin to the 'Family of Man' back in the middle '50s." That show, organized by Edward J. Steichen for the Museum of Modern Art, presented 500 photos from 68 counties to depict the commonality of mankind in the face of Cold War tensions.

The current show's founders, who also include Charles Traub, chairman of the masters program in photography at the New York School of Visual Arts; photo documentarian Gilles Peress, and independent curator Alice Rose George, were familiar with the Daytona museum's excellent reputation and rapidly approved Miller's request. At least one of the originators is expected to visit Daytona for an event planned later in the exhibition, probably in late March.

DBCC officials were enthused that the show could run concurrently with a previously scheduled exhibit, "South Southeast," which features photojournalist Steve McCurry's 1982-1998 portraits of people in war-torn Afghanistan, as well as Pakistan, India, Cambodia, Kashmir and Thailand. That exhibit was the idea of the museum's recently resigned long-term director, Alison Nordstrom, who wanted to do a show similar to one on the Gulf War she had mounted in 1992.

Even before Miller's teaching trip to New York, DBCC President Kent Sharples had suggested that the museum come up with a patriotic-theme show in the aftermath of the terrorism to complement McCurry's work. That idea did not set well with Nordstrom, who cited administrative meddling and a loss of academic freedom as reasons for her resignation in December ["Picture Imperfect," Jan. 17].

"I'm not sure that patriotism is the most fitting tag to attach to this," Miller says. It does, however, "fit" with Sharples' concept of a domestic photography show related to America's recent surge of patriotism, he says.

While "here is new york" features a series of pictures of the American flag waving from battered buildings and the rescue scene, those images represent only a tiny portion of the collection. There are groupings based on more than a dozen themes (all to be included in the Daytona show), including collapse of the twin towers, immediate damage, the scene at ground zero, victims, firemen, policemen, the military, onlookers, medical personnel, environmental damage, media and protests. There are also shots of the burning buildings taken from every imaginable direction and angle -- and of soot-covered New Yorkers escaping the devastation.

The composition of most of the photos -- deliberately displayed anonymously -- is of such high quality that it's often difficult to differentiate those taken by professionals from the works of the amateurs. "Some shots are more obviously by professionals," Miller notes, "as they clearly are [taken] from vantage points that only they could have gained access to."

As in New York, people who view the show in Daytona Beach may purchase digital prints of any of the exhibited pictures for $25 each, with the proceeds earmarked for charity. Thus far, most of the proceeds have gone to the Children's Aid Society's WTC Relief Fund to benefit families of victims, particularly those of low income such as cleaning staff and service personnel. More than $500,000 has been raised to date.

"What is perhaps most striking about 'here is new york,'" says Shulan, "is how American it is ... how democratic." Staffed entirely by volunteers, the exhibit has helped people "from all walks of life work through their private emotions in public with great dignity and grace," he says. "It is a testament to the positive power that [photographic] images can wield when they are freed from the media and allowed to speak for themselves."


More by William A. Sievert


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