An Accidental Icon of September 11

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An unintentional double exposure miraculously places the before and after of the tragedy in the same frame


fallen hope.jpg

Gregg Brown

The International Center of Photography's five exhibitions on September 11 focus not on the hours of destruction but on the months of search, demolition, and renewal.

Most of the photographers represented were already famous at the time of the tragedy -- or were among the thousands of amateurs who also created countless images. One, however, Gregg Brown, is an actor whose photography was a secondary profession. (His photography site is here.) He was chosen by FEMA on the basis of a small Yellow Pages advertisement that indicated his willingness to do emergency work 24 hours a day. He had no previous experience with aerial photography but said (without knowing the caller's identity) he could do it if a client arranged for the aircraft. That led him to drop all his other work and spend months above Ground Zero and Fresh Kills landfill documenting the immense response, one of the greatest humanitarian and engineering challenges of our history.

One of his photographs, which Mr. Brown calls "Fallen Hope" (above), was an accidental double exposure, as he happened to reuse a roll of film on which he had previously shot test images of lower Manhattan, including the Twin Towers, with a new lens while waiting for a routine assignment to begin. The age of Photoshop has made it harder to appreciate chance exposures like this. But seen in the context of countless hours of hazardous flying, it's a tribute to the photographer, the New York police helicopter pilots who flew him, and all those who began the work of reconstruction and renewal.

An interview with the photographer is here, and a few of his aerial photos are below.


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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center and holds a Ph.D in European history. More

Edward Tenner is an independent writer and speaker on the history of technology and the unintended consequences of innovation. He holds a Ph.D. in European history from the University of Chicago and was executive editor for physical science and history at Princeton University Press. A former member of the Harvard Society of Fellows and John Simon Guggenheim fellow, he has been a visiting lecturer at Princeton and has held visiting research positions at the Institute for Advanced Study, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and the Princeton Center for Information Technology Policy. He is now an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy of Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center, where he remains a senior research associate.

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