Photography exhibit looks at the World Trade Center before and after 9/11

Robert G. Mull

Iconic symbols of the New York skyline, the World Trade Center gleamed like golden towers in the sunset, then smoked and fell with the devastation of 9/11.

Such was the cycle of life for what had been once the tallest buildings in the world.

“Greek Orthodox Church and Towers,” by Eric O’Connell, September 11, 2001

Santa Fe’s Monroe Gallery of Photography is commemorating the 20th anniversary of that fateful day with “9/11 In Remembrance,” an exhibit of more than 20 images. The photographs document the design and building of the World Trade Center, its reign over the city skyline and its fall on that crisp September day.

World War II and lifestyle photographer Tony Vaccaro captured the towers during a 1979 sunset, as well as their architect, Minoru Yamasaki, in 1969.

Yamasaki’s preference for “aesthetic thinness” surfaced in the narrow spacing of the buildings’ windows and the vertical patterning created by aluminum alloy sheathing. When construction ended in 1976, it garnered scant praise, but the skyscrapers became symbolic of the Manhattan skyline.

“The group in dust, Wall Street,” by Eric O’Connell, September 11.

When terrorists struck 25 years later, freelance photographer Eric O’Connell had just moved to New York from San Francisco. He saw the burning towers, heard a rumble and grabbed his cameras and ran toward the flames. He got to the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church as everything exploded around him. When the pounding stopped, he didn’t know if he was dead or alive.

O’Connell’s print shows both the towers and the church being swallowed by smoke and flames.

“He heard people yelling, ‘It’s coming down!’ and he dove into a lobby,” gallery co-owner Michelle Monroe said. “He couldn’t tell what was inside and what was outside. It looks like a horror movie.”

“Firemen on the scene of the terrorist attack on World Trade Center,” by Shepard Sherbell, September 11, 2001.

“That church became a symbol,” co-owner Sidney Monroe continued. “A lot of the rescue workers would go to the church.”

O’Connell also captured the chaos and confusion of people engulfed in ash and dust in “The group in dust, West Street, September 11, 2001.”

“Twin Towers in sunset, New York,” by Tony Vaccaro, 1979.

Shepard Sherbell photographed a horrified trio of firemen watching the collapse.

“There were 8 million faces that looked like that for weeks afterward,” Sidney said.

“They shut down all the traffic in Manhattan,” Michelle Monroe added. “They designated streets as one-way for emergency responders. New Yorkers would line the streets as the shifts changed.”

The crowd applauded, waved signs of support and gave out water bottles and flowers, echoing the pandemic’s spontaneous salutes to first responders. Black bunting draped every firehouse, honoring the firefighters who died.

“Every firehouse was a shrine,” Sidney Monroe said.

New Mexico’s Eric Draper photographed President George W. Bush on the phone in a Florida classroom when he learned of the attack. Draper was the president’s personal photographer.

As Deputy Assistant Dan Bartlett points to news footage of the World Trade Center, President George W. Bush gathers information about the attack Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2001, from a classroom at Emma E. Booker Elementary School in Sarasota, Fla. (Courtesy of Monroe Gallery of Photography)

“He was reading books to a kindergarten class,” Sidney Monroe said. “They set up an office in one of the school rooms, then they whisked him out on Air Force One and flew around until they figured out what was going on.”

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