31 January 2002

A Thousand Words

"here is new york: a democracy of photographs" showcases the continuing power of images

THE YOUNG WOMAN is tiny. She would not stand out among the surge of figures in the close space were it not for her orange pants, a blast of fire matching the combustible images covering every inch above eye level the eye can take in. December in SoHo: two storefronts, a former agnes b. for women store, are no longer neat with fashion, but swollen with sorrow and torrents of imagery, hanging from walls and wires, with clusters of New Yorkers comparing their own memories (or evidence) of those moments on September 11 and afterward. My eye skitters over the visual documentation of that day but sudden as photos, I see the woman recoil and my eye is drawn to what she has seen. Tucked into the other frozen instants, the image seems at first gulls from the Hudson against the burning towers, but they're death swans, frozen dives, figures alive, soon gone from the frame. Her head snaps toward mine: two strangers, we're both crying. We're both tiny in the face of the horrifying proof and of this moment.

Presented by the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs, "here is new york: a democracy of photographs," images by professional and amateur photographers, makes its first major appearance—outside those two crowded rooms—in Chicago. The show of more than 1,500 images opens Friday at 72 East Randolph, a 2,500-square-foot storefront across from the Chicago Cultural Center. Will the emotional wallop be different? While Chicago viewers will not be seeking corroboration of having been geographically in that moment, emotions can't help but well. This was a shared apocalypse.

The Chicago space is airier than New York's provisional setting, well able to handle their 3,000 visitors-a-day level of traffic. There is one added oddity: Many of the photos in Chicago are suspended above eye level. While not totally crick-inducing, it bears the symbolic weight of the posture taken by so many New Yorkers visiting Ground Zero: looking upward at absence, as if the human gaze could sketch the fallen figures back into place.

Looking over the photos without a crowd on Monday as art installers were two-thirds through their task, fully into their gallows humor, I was struck by how the iconography is commonplace three months on, but also capable of fresh shock. The eye races, the brain denies, then suddenly a concrete image shocks, alarms, terrifies, dismays. There's one image of the towers in flame in the distance, as if taken on a Brooklyn rooftop, conical black smoke cycloning into the sky. As if the photo of someone's girlfriend, a young woman looks toward the camera, squinting from the sun, smiling at her beholder. It's like a souvenir of a day at the beach: remember that, honey?

The panoply of photos is not wholly at random; verticals are mingled with horizontals, similarly themed images are spread apart. There is a certain subversive power to the truly great photos being shuffled amid the great ones, as surprising as the swelling white flocks of memos fluttering down on Brooklyn and Queens that day. Patrol cars, enflamed. Flattened fire pumpers. A sign: "KEEP YOUR MASK ON AT ALL TIMES." In business garb, ash-dusted faces retreat. In firefighting apparel, sweat-sleek faces advance. "Good Morning America" on a Times Square Jumbotron, sending images across the nation. And this horror: on Church Street below the site, a stunning shot, as much Brueghel as Philip-Lorca diCorcia, as a dozen or so figures run from the clouds of onrushing debris, faces in postures of frozen panic, each purchase of adrenaline creating a different organic reaction. But always human.

Witness is not always art. But photography offers us the gift of the offhand, the seen but not understood. Look over the photos. We know what happened, but we still do not know what has been done.

New York State of Mind

Moving about in post-aftermath New York

THE PLANE BANKS to the right, toward Brooklyn.

The last time I flew into New York, the 767 rode low over the lights of Manhattan, as if tugged gently along the beaded arterial glow of Broadway. It's a sooty dusk this December day, not from smoke, but from fog and shattered light. It is as if this spectacle were composed of albumen and platinum and memory, like a Stieglitz print on a clean, well-lighted gallery's wall.

Of course I look for the absence. I know New York. But not so well that my eye intuitively knows how to sketch in the missing towers. I cannot see coils of smoke, only sprigs of rain and approaching night.

The weather is unseasonable, warm, then hot, the renewal of spring in blizzard season. I am staying further uptown, where flowers are confused, in early bloom, their enthusiasm sentencing them to certain death. The next day, the light on the streets is as clear and bright as a new lover's smile. And it smells of spring. I go downtown to a friend's, nearer the site, and I expect the unspeakable buzzsaw of smells to assault my senses. The burning Coke cans, as some said, the bristle of burning wire, copy toner, frizz. But no. The night's damp still lingers in sidewalk crevices, along the facades of bodegas and bars and boutiques. At Houston and Bowery, I know I will go no closer. I have read, seen, talked, e-mailed, considered: I do not wish to know the literal void. The spiritual void is being filled. Colleagues and friends talk of renewal, not thematically, not dogmatically, but through simple enthusiasm, mere hope. The next day will mark two months since September 11. We don't talk around the subject, but no one really wants to talk about it. It is not a dance around the 220-story elephant in the room, but a dance of celebration, to the gift of inappropriate, untimely atmospheric conditions, a shred of global warming caressing the hearts, bodies, faces of the recently battered.

At Gitanes, the smell of brioche, café au lait, and that glorious attitude: I deign to serve you, how dare you look at me, enjoy your small parcel of land on this little sidewalk in so-large Soho. The sun beams down. We talk of many things, and all are good. The light of beautiful eyes, obscured first by sunglasses, but then by smiles that beam almost like phosphorus. We are alive; Manhattan is happy; we persist, we will grow stronger; soon, we will even be surly again. One of the waitstaff stands on the lip of the doorway, looks toward the sun. "It smells like France," she says.

"What part," I ask, "Are you from there?

"I'm from Morocco," she says, "I just imagine it smells like France."

"What does Morocco smell like?"

"The sun." She squints, then cuts me a smile like fresh creamery butter.

I'm invited to a dinner party that night. A documentary is premiering on the Sundance Channel. The filmmaker has invited friends and peers to share her debut, her public mortification, but first, to pour wine and rumor upon the waters. The owner of the apartment has just moved from Los Angeles to New York for work. It's further downtown, along the tributary of Broadway that feeds nearer the former World Trade Center. The wind is picking up. Night falls. The smell of the Hudson, the waft of the East River. Insurgent water, silent, somewhere near. A sour note of flowers somewhere, a pile of romantic gestures not made, left to founder and rot.

My nose is as nervous as a terrier. I will smell death, soon, I fear, jack-legging my way to this unfamiliar address. But no. Only the smell of spring and damp in the midst of encroaching winter. The room is warm. Bread is broken. The space is nice, but still not fully moved into. The hostess charms, a non-Angeleno returned to New York, concerned but not jumpy about the future. The back windows look downtown. There, from only a couple of blocks, you can see the dome of 2 World Financial Center, which was the most visible of squat survivors in the WTC aftermath. It glows. Too, the work lights, into the evening, and into the night after we will sleep, a glow of blinding, angelic transformation heightening the sky. I don't want to steal glances. The hostess pours more wine.

A few minutes before the program begins, there's trouble with the volume. As someone works to make sense of all the cables and jacks, a moment's silence falls. Of the dozen or so guests, I notice, all but one of us stares off, curious, wary, quiet, through the back window toward the weightless light.

"Aha!" the technician announces, the sound pouring out, a burst of sound and music promoting the show that starts in seconds. The personal expression, the entertainment, commences. We look gratefully toward art, toast our friend, our lives, alive.

[Newcity, 31 January 2002]

10 January 2002

Film Life

ONE OF THE BEST LESSER-KNOWN European writers in translation, Cees Nooteboom excels at conveying a thoughtful, urbane European sensibility. The 68-year-old Dutchman's 1998 "All Souls Day," newly translated by Susan Massotty, boasts an even cleaner version of his plaintive prose than in earlier novels like "Rituals" and "The Following Story."

In "All Souls Day," Daane is a Dutch documentary maker who has lived in Berlin since the death of his wife and child in an airplane crash a decade earlier. Nooteboom demonstrates his usual alacrity in divining interior states, in a fashion similar to Peter Handke in books like "The Afternoon of a Writer," but Nooteboom is less self-serious. While Handke would pause to fashion falling light in language, Nooteboom's thinkers continue their forward progress, even when they find it absurd.

Novels about filmmakers' processes rarely convince. They're more about externals than internals. (Even Don DeLillo in "The Names" gets precious instead of precise, seeking metaphor more than capturing thought.) Daane sees himself as "a man with machines, free but tied down... a traveler without a suitcase." He is a consummate contemporary cosmopolitan, thoughtful yet unmoored. In tender yet astringent prose, Nooteboom chronicles the workings of Daane's mind as "he wondered how much of his real self was visible to others." It may be my favorite of his eight novels that have been translated, a book that feels like the world instead of a construct of it. Daane considers making a new film from the fragments of life he encounters on his walks through the newly unified Berlin. Can these fragments cohere? Nooteboom cites another writer on "the immense aphasia of life," and it is a state at which he excels at depicting. Daane meets a young Dutch-Spanish woman and things take shape: abstraction recedes and the power of the chance encounter sweeps his old life away.

Poetic yet philosophical in the best possible way, "All Souls Day" is a heartening consideration of the fate of the reflective intellectual in any century. It is as lovely, as offhand as photos.

"All Souls Day" by Cees Nooteboom Harcourt, $25, 340 pages
[Newcity, 10 January 2002]