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, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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