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N.Y.'s State of Mind

Three exhibitions coming to Los Angeles sketch a stoic and sensitive portrait of ground zero after the Sept. 11 attack

June 20, 2002|SCARLET CHENG | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

To respond to the unthinkable--that was everyone's task after Sept. 11. In New York, impromptu shrines and commemorations sprouted like mushrooms after rain--notes and photographs dotting walls and fences near ground zero, candles and memento mori in Union Square. And then came more concerted efforts, organized exhibitions of art, photography and writing.

Three of these 9/11 shows are coming to Los Angeles, starting with the opening today of "Faces of Ground Zero: A Tribute to America's Heroes" at the Skirball Cultural Center. On June 30, "The September 11 Photo Project" opens at the Armory Northwest annex of the Armory Center for the Arts, and on July 14, "Reactions" comes to the Williamson Gallery at Art Center College of Design, both in Pasadena.

The Pasadena shows have an open-tent, bring-your-own-art ethos; the Skirball offering is a more traditional, artist-driven show, but each began with just one person's private sense of mission--"What can I do to cope with these events?"

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"Faces of Ground Zero" was the brainchild of veteran Life magazine photographer Joe McNally. Before Sept. 11, he had worked with the largest Polaroid camera in the world--the size of a one-car garage, it takes 40-by-80-inch "instant" pictures--for a story on the camera for National Geographic.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday June 21, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 7 inches; 264 words Type of Material: Correction
*Skirball hours--An article in Thursday's Calendar Weekend about the "Faces of Ground Zero" exhibition at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles listed the wrong hours. Through July 14, it is open from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on weekends.

After Sept. 11, he had the idea to use the camera--housed in a studio 20 blocks from the World Trade Center--to create a series of 189 portraits, slightly larger than life-size, of firefighters, paramedics, survivors, community leaders and others--all members in one way or another of the ground zero community.

"We made a promise that whatever time of day they came in, we would shoot them," McNally said by telephone while on an assignment in Maryland. The studio opened its doors two weeks after Sept. 11 and stayed open for three weeks. Among those captured on film: firefighters Billy Ryan and Mike Morrisey, paramedic Juana Lomi, Cantor Fitzgerald's managing director David Kravette, and then-New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

The harried Giuliani canceled on McNally and his team three times before he finally showed up, and in the resulting portrait, he looks scrunched and uncomfortable in his crisp black suit. "Giuliani was under tremendous stress," McNally recalled. "I feel the experience had literally squeezed him."

Each subject was interviewed, and in the exhibition an extract of their stories appears with their photographs. Some tell of tragic losses, others of amazing escapes. One of the most extraordinary survival stories comes from window washer Jan Demczur who, trapped in a Tower One elevator with five others, managed to pry open the elevator door with his squeegee. When faced with a plasterboard wall, he and the others in the elevator used the same instrument to break through.

"These people had really harrowing days, and the emotions in the studio were quite high," McNally says. "After the shoot they would come back and look at their pictures on the floor. Some people went to pieces, seeing themselves and telling their stories." In January, 87 of McNally's portraits were displayed in Grand Central Terminal, where an estimated quarter million people saw them. Since then, a scaled-down show of 58 photographs has traveled to Boston, London and San Francisco. In L.A., the Skirball was chosen because it had the right amount of space and adequate security. "We felt that it really did fit our mission," says museum director Adele Lander Burke. "We see ourselves as a meeting place, a place to discuss ideas. We wanted to honor these people."

"The emotional impact is quite high when you see them all together," McNally said. "It derives from the enormity of the event, then the stature and dignity of these people."

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Michael Feldschuh, amateur photographer and managing director of an investment company, lives and works in downtown Manhattan. On Sept. 11 and the days that followed, he took pictures of the aftermath, including the shrines and ceremonies in Union Square. He noticed that many others had their cameras in hand as well.

Why not put all those photos together in an exhibition everyone could see? Feldschuh posted fliers and created a Web site, asking for submissions--no more than three per photographer, not larger than 11 by 14 inches--and soon his mailbox was flooded.

Feldschuh rustled up donated space on Wooster Street in lower Manhattan to use as a gallery. He found volunteers to fix it up, and he paid for miscellaneous expenses out of his own pocket.

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