This article was published online on August 9, 2021.
Eugene Richards lives in Brooklyn, but was out of the country on September 11, 2001. When he returned to New York City four days later, he has written, he “metamorphosed into a bruise.” He stayed home, convinced that no one needed another photographer surveying the wreckage. But Richards’s wife and collaborator, Janine Altongy, insisted that they go see it. “You can’t avoid history, not when you’re so close to it,” he remembers her saying. Over the course of several months, Richards and Altongy traversed the city, recording scenes of loss from the long aftermath of the attacks. Their 2002 book, Stepping Through the Ashes, is a collection of Richards’s photographs and Altongy’s interviews with survivors, bereaved family members, first responders, and others.
These days, Richards and Altongy almost never go back to Ground Zero. The memorial pools that now mark where the two towers stood, Richards says, are “so far, far away from the experience” of walking the smoke-filled streets that fall. If it were up to him, the site would be simpler, less polished—perhaps just the portions of the buildings’ facades that remained after the attacks. Two decades on, his photos are a stark reminder of a time when those ruins were all that was visible, a time that already feels long past.
This article appears in the September 2021 print edition with the headline “Before the Smoke Cleared.”