- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 11, 2002

Steve McCurry was one of the first photographers on the scene when Al Qaeda terrorists hijacked two U.S. airliners and flew them into the World Trade Center in New York City on a sunny fall morning eight months ago today.

Mr. McCurry of Magnum Photos, the world's premier photo agency, worked straight through the first two days after the attack, which left nearly 3,000 people dead. He said he had seen the World Trade Center's twin towers every day from his office window on Washington Square Park.

"To have them crumble, it's like ripping your heart out," Mr. McCurry, 52, wrote in the book and exhibit Magnum compiled about the New York attack. Ten other photographers, in town for an annual agency meeting the night before, also took to the streets that fateful day.

Thirty-seven of their color and black-and-white photos can be seen in "New York, September 11 by Magnum Photographers" at the Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building through June 30.

The photographers caught the action in human terms and often surrealist light. Mr. McCurry captured the brightness of the early hours, Larry Towell the darkness after Building 7 collapsed.

There have been other exhibitions relating to the September 11 attacks, but this one may convince still-mourning Americans that photojournalism is the art form of this century. The show, however, cries out for an appropriate exhibition space. The curators mounted it in what essentially is a walk-through from the building entrance to a Starbucks concession.

A videotape of the attacks by Evan Fairbanks, who happened to be recording the visit by Archbishop of Wales Rowan Williams to nearby Trinity Church, runs constantly. (He's not a Magnum photographer.) Also displayed is the severely damaged 8-foot-by-12-foot American flag found in the World Trade Center rubble three days after the attack. Both the video and flag add to the poignancy of the photos and the exhibit's visual richness.

Images of billowing smoke and debris are etched already into our memory, and these Magnum photos are especially searing. Several are by Mr. McCurry, who was the first still photographer to catch the explosions.

Thomas Hoepker silhouetted the Brooklyn Bridge against the skyline and the burning buildings behind the bridge. He wrote in the book: "I've never seen the city like this, or anything like it. You got this doomsday feeling. It looked like the whole city was in flames."

Susan Meiselas first captured people running on Church Street away from billowing clouds that seemed to take the shape of monsters. She later shot a sculpture that had toppled near the trade center. "Late in the afternoon of that first terrible day, I came across this sculpture near the World Trade Center. Frozen in place, it seemed to stand for all those who were gone," she wrote.

She had started the day by joining a friend for breakfast at a diner.

Photos of the firefighters at Ground Zero are heart-rending. Miss Meiselas found a large group of them reassembling after the towers' collapse and shot them in color. "Some had been at Ground Zero. Exhausted and stunned, they stared out in disbelief. Perhaps that's why they let me pass," she wrote.

Gilles Peress, who photographed in even more intense color, shows a rookie fireman staring out at him in shock. Fire and smoke billowed just a few feet behind the firefighter. Other firefighters choked on the smoke as they shot water into the haze.

Mr. Peress put his reaction succinctly: "I don't trust words. I trust pictures."

Paul Fusco, who lives in New Jersey, suffered the most frustration when he was barred from the city. "When I got in on the 13th, I could only do people's reactions. Confronting the police was not a lot of fun," he said. Mr. Fusco shot the vigils, banners, memorials and "have you seen me?" posters that covered most of Union Square.

The photographer says he encountered former President Bill Clinton, surrounded by bodyguards. A woman had approached Mr. Clinton and was saying, "I'm the wife of a firefighter." Mr. Clinton embraced her.

The strict geometry, harmony and balance of Mr. McCurry's photos make them the best in the exhibition. He has covered the Persian Gulf war and fighting in Cambodia, Lebanon and Afghanistan. ("I've made 18 trips there," the photographer says.)

The fireman he silhouetted against debris sliding down from the top edge of "Fireman at Ground Zero After the Attack on the World Trade Center" is the exhibit's signature image. "I always feel the picture needs design and balance, and it becomes second nature to snap the shutter at the right moment. I look for harmony in the lines and a balance in the shapes. I work from the gut," he says.

The September 11 experience was "on a whole different level than the wars I covered, more what Dresden must have been like, or Hiroshima or Nagasaki," Mr. McCurry says.

"It was such an insidious kind of evil in this sneak attack that killed office workers at the trade center and the firemen who tried to rescue them."

Mr. McCurry realized he was in danger from collapsing buildings and contaminated air. "I didn't have a mask, and the air and dust particles I was breathing in reminded me of the smells of the Gulf war, but I felt this was what I had to do," he says.

The exhibit ends with images memorializing the trade center towers. One shows a young woman holding a flower bouquet on the Staten Island Ferry with the towers behind her.

Visitors mesmerized by the videotape and staring at the photos in the exhibit indicate the pain is still there.

WHAT: "New York, September 11 by Magnum Photographers"

WHERE: Smithsonian Institution's Arts and Industries Building, 900 Jefferson Drive SW

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily, through June 30


PHONE: 202/357-2700

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