The (Now Sacred) Visual Icons Created in the Wake of 9/11


On September 12, 2001, I reflexively began stuffing a large manila envelope with "souvenirs" of the previous day's attack. I couldn't help myself. In addition to the American flags, the NYPD/NYFD t-shirt and hat, and the commemorative (and exploitative) garments sold on street corners above 14th Street, I saved all the magazines and newspapers I could find featuring 9/11, including those cheap one-offs that routinely sprout up after major and minor events, like mushrooms following the rain.

When I was a kid, I saved a somber cover of LIFE magazine with a funereal black band around a photo of JFK, and, years later, I framed the front page of the Daily News with a photo of John Lennon's lifeless body shot through the ambulance window. We all must be hardwired to collect mementos, good or bad, for posterity, to be sure, but also as aides de memoire, lest our memories fail us. And tragedies are often ripe for souvenir mongering.

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Of course 9/11 prompted countless responses (which I presume that the 9/11 museum will dutifully archive). My own hoard is decidedly modest. I rejected the inevitable kitschy pins and banners that flooded the streets and continue to be available. What I do have, however, are sacred. When, after five years, in 2006, I considered pruning the collection of duplicates and irrelevancies, I became veritably paralyzed by indecision. Destroying these reminders and remainders was, I began to believe, a crime against the memory they were saved to keep alive. So I retained everything, not because they could someday be invaluable to historians, but rather because they have earned a certain sanctity.

Granted, mine is a narrow, highly personal sampling of artifacts that represent my proclivities as a former editorial graphic designer. I kept entire issues of the New York Times, notably the September 12 edition with the screaming headline "U.S. Attacked," which the Times re-issued as a "souvenir" a few days after the cover date because so many people clamored for it. I also have Art Spiegelman's dramatic black on black -- shadow of the WTC -- New Yorker cover, with a white blotch where I tore off the mailing sticker (so as not to marr the eloquence of the graphic commentary). The Rolling Stone cover with the sparkling American flag was indicative of the patriotic surge that swept the country (and New York) -- and the poor craftsmanship of the artifacts. But the image that most moved me -- and which I had forgotten about until just now, opening up the tattered manila envelope -- is Edward Sorel's New Yorker cover showing the foot-traffic-eye-view of a fireman's memorial.

Of the many visual icons created in the wake of 9/11, those makeshift memorials and haunting "missing" flyers were the most devastatingly sad. Sorel captured this from a perspective that was neither maudlin nor cliché. If I had to keep only one momento, his cover would be it. Of course, I'll never throw any of them out.

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Steven Heller is a contributing writer for The Atlantic, the co-chair of the MFA Design program at the School of Visual Arts, and the co-founder of its MFA Design Criticism program.

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