Issue #111  9/26/2006
Books: Meyerowitz On World Trade Center Aftermath and The Cirkut Camera's Yard-Long Panoramic Images

By Matt Damsker


Photographs and Text by Joel Meyerowitz. Sept. 2006; 350 pages, 400 color plates; $75.00 hardback; ISBN No. 0-7148-4655-4. Published by Phaidon Press, 180 Varick St., New York, N.Y. 10014; and Regent's Wharf, All Saints St., London N1 9PA. Website: http://www.phaidon.com .

Countless photojournalists must have envied Joel Meyerowitz his exclusive access to the ruins of the World Trade Center in the aftermath of 9/11. It may even seem a little unfair that he was granted such license for nearly a year during the cleanup of the site, since his permission came about partly because of his friendship with the father of Manhattan's park commissioner. Besides, Meyerowitz is a fine-art portraitist and not a newsman. But Ground Zero deserved an official photographer, and Meyerowitz was a superb choice. A New York native and one of color photography's early champions, he could be counted on to create a powerful and compassionate archive of post-9/11 imagery.

And that he has done, working diligently and passionately with a large-format wooden camera for about nine months, capturing so much more than the chaos of twisted metal and unimaginable debris across a 16-acre expanse that was pretty much unlike anything else in modern history. For Ground Zero is a kind of American Pompeii--mythic in its resonance, its ruins intermingled with the flesh and spirit of those who died there, a locus of civic tragedy that leaves a literal hole in the world. Meyerowitz's camera thus performs explorations of scale that continually match the vastness of Ground Zero's destruction with the dedicated humanity that is there to repair it. In so many of these shots, the large-format eye scans the gnarled, undone universe of metal and concrete, and it is not until we look closely that we notice the workers--human miniatures in hard hats and safety-orange vests--blended into the wreckage, providing visual grace notes of caring and continuity amidst the apocalypse.

Not surprisingly, such photos are Meyerowitz's best and most powerful visions from this unique archive. They amount to monumental floodings of sheer visual information that also convey the beauty of pure atmosphere: indigo dusk, with tall, undamaged skyscrapers in the background; sleepless night, with workers in the glare of lights that reflect off the rising smoke and dust; and golden morning, with sunlight filtering through like hope. In their richness of color and infinity of detail, these shots may remind us of Andreas Gursky's vast photo-canvases, but in this case Meyerowitz is the anti-Gursky, his images exuding unforced pathos and documentarian zeal, as opposed to Gursky's dry, clinical vision of modernity. More quietly dramatic, of course, are the many single portraits of the volunteers, laborers, and officials who bring life and optimism to Ground Zero. Meyerowitz locates the patriotic personal style of their garb, with their flag-patterned hard hats and bandanas, along with their indefatigable pride in what they are doing, and what anyone must do in any aftermath: Go on.



By Robert B. MacKay. December, 2006; published by W.W. Norton & Co., $100 hardback; 216 pages, over 100 black-and-white plates. ISBN No. 0-393-05160-5; phone: 212-354-5500, fax: 212-869-0856. Website: http://www.wwnorton.com .

A cheerful and nostalgic corollary to the large-format 9/11 images of Meyerowitz--as well as the hyper-detailed artistry of Gursky--this charming and handsome volume documents one of photography's great novelties: Eastman Kodak's Cirkut Camera, a rotational device for taking panoramic photos (called "yard-longs" in their day, many of them extending to as much as five feet in width). The Cirkut was a pop phenomenon during the 1910s and 1920s, and was in use through World War II as well. Cirkut collector and antiquarian Robert B. MacKay provides an entertaining history of this invention, along with crisp reproductions that reveal the camera's excellent capacity for delivering rich detail on an unprecedented panoramic scale.

Indeed, despite its wondrously extended eye, the Cirkut was destined to become a dinosaur for much the same reason as did the wraparound cinematic novelty known as Cinerama. Contact-printed from their exceedingly long negatives (few of which survive today), Cirkut panoramas weren't terribly practical or cost-efficient for photographers. More to the point, Cirkut images, like Cinerama, offer breadth of vision but none of the eye-guiding artistry that makes for effective photography. This is probably why so many Cirkut photos are of large groups of people--the 1908 class of Wellesley college, for example, or an international twins' convention, or bomber squadrons, sports teams, bathing beauties, and conventioneers--spread across the remarkable width of the yard-longs. These made sensational souvenirs for the people in the pictures. But when it came to documenting an unpeopled expanse or any other landscape, Cirkut photographers were hard-pressed to compose a coherent image, shaping and shading a precise moment of physical reality, as opposed to capturing an unfettered sweep of visual data, from far left to far right.

That said, there are exceptions to this rule of the Cirkut's aesthetic. J.W. Sandison's shot of a lumberyard in Washington State captures the acres of piled wood with a fascinating feel for the textures and geometries of this industrial expanse. And a Cirkut photo of the 1922 New York Yankees baseball team stops the eye dead in the middle of the photo, as a cocksure Babe Ruth stands out in all his vividness and charismatic heft, and seems to draw in all the energy of the moment with his familiar moon face. Ultimately, it is these flashes of human interest that activate most of the Cirkut photos, as the photographers struggle to compose interesting assemblages of so much detail, and occasionally succeed, as in some of the military photos of naval fleets or mechanized brigades. Thanks to Robert MacKay, Eastman Kodak's exercise in visual (and commercial) ambition and the roaring era during which it flourished are well remembered and lovingly resurrected.

Matt Damsker is an author and critic, who has written about photography and the arts for the Los Angeles Times, Hartford Courant, Philadelphia Bulletin, Rolling Stone magazine and other publications. His book, "Rock Voices", was published in 1981 by St. Martin's Press. His essay in the book, "Marcus Doyle: Night Vision" was published in the fall of 2005. He currently reviews books for U.S.A. Today.

(Book publishers, authors and photography galleries/dealers may send review copies to us at: I Photo Central, 258 Inverness Circle, Chalfont, PA 18914. We do not guarantee that we will review all books or catalogues that we receive. Books must be aimed at photography collecting, not how-to books for photographers.)