Photographic Memories

by

09/11/2011

Neighborhood: World Trade Center

The thing that intrigues me about photographs is not the spontaneity in which they’re taken, nor the way they freeze time, but the fact that in the split second when the shutter snaps, one doesn’t know which moments will become meaningful until much later. Capturing chance moments and random events, we can’t know the value of an image until life unfolds and the future develops. In an instant, things can be forever changed, sometimes leaving a negative image, sometimes a positive development.

Two photos I have taken have become more precious to me than the thousands I have in albums. The two are separate from the others, separate from each other. They shift around my apartment, sometimes living in a drawer for a while, sometimes leaning up against a stack of books, sometimes lounging on a side table, but I always know exactly where they lie. The first represents pure destruction, and the second, all that is good in the world. Perhaps that’s why I keep them apart—but if I ever had to flee my home… I’d take them together.

I bought a Polaroid camera when I first moved to Manhattan over ten years ago, the format unique, bizarre even—the prints were landscape rather than square, and half the size of a standard Polaroid, yet the camera itself was twice as large. They were soon discontinued (for obvious reasons). So I have exactly one roll of film from that camera, which I shot on a boat tour circling the island of Manhattan. Of those twelve pictures, exactly one is of the World Trade Center. It’s shot from an angle far out on the water, where the twins actually do tower above everything around them, making mere midgets of the surrounding skyscrapers.

When the airplanes tore into the towers, leaving behind angled stab wounds ten stories high, almost a city block wide, and deep enough to penetrate the core, I was—like many—on my way to work, safely underground. When I emerged onto 32nd street and stared down 3rd Avenue, I saw the first tower crumble in to itself as clearly as if I was five blocks away, not fifty. I first thought about the structures themselves, the shock of seeing steel crumble like ash, and then almost as an afterthought, shuddered as I thought of the people trapped inside.

Walking home that day, the shrieking orchestra of sirens did not drown out grown men crying into their hands, women wailing into pay phones, policemen clasping each other in tears. My roommate and I sat in front of the television for weeks, barely leaving our living room, me clutching my small grey Polaroid. Covered in fingerprints, this “before” photo depicts how everything can change in an instant; and to me, it represents an absolute indifference toward human life.

I saw those lives repeatedly—and up close—as I walked to my office each day, passing by the hospitals along First Avenue. Family and friends of the missing hung flyers on the fences, a wallpaper of desperation six blocks long, of every missing father, brother, mother, sister, and son. I looked into their zeroxed eyes. Layer upon layer of suspended disbelief, put up by two-thousand families all clinging to the same small thread of hope. I saw their flyer faces day after day, until the elements beat them down, the wind blew them away along with what was left of hope, the rain ripping them apart.

Months later, only the smallest scraps of paper clung on to the fences, bits of tape, bits of face. Likewise I will cling to my beat up Polaroid, taken on a grey day, not knowing there would be a much darker day that would make mere ghosts of what were captured in my kodachrome.

The second photo was actually taken first. Six months before I moved to the city and over a year before 9/11, I took a backpacking trip through Europe. I filled journal upon journal and took rolls and rolls of film, my backpack growing heavier with each step. Just on the cusp of the digital age, I used an inexpensive 35-millimeter camera and had the film developed upon my return, then methodically filed the prints in cheap photo albums—the glue decomposing as we speak—having no idea that one would suddenly become significant.

Ten years later, from out of nowhere, I got a Facebook friend request and a thoughtful email from someone I met on that trip way back when.

I remembered our first encounter distinctly; the message bringing the memories into sharp focus. I chalked it up to good timing, his good looks and my good luck. A drunk Australian girl practically shoved me into him. I have her sloppy drunkenness—to thank for the somewhat slurred introduction. After a long night out, he invited me to his place. Three days later, I was still there. The only sights I’d seen in Gothenburg were his Ikea sheets, his Ikea headboard, and in a more creative position, his colorful Ikea rug. Though I felt we had a deeper connection than our appreciation of inexpensive, well-designed Swedish furniture, we were twenty-seven and lived oceans apart. We settled for snapping a photograph, a close up of us both taken by him on my suggestion, red-eyed and sleepy before he took me to the station.

When he came to New York and into my life again, all of these years later, I scoured my entire apartment searching for the lone photograph, the only memento we have of our earlier selves, almost to prove what was happening was real. It wasn’t where it should have been, in the Europe albums between Oslo and Malmo. I finally found it in a stack of lovers—a few years back, in the grips of the disastrous combination of loneliness and boredom, I decided to gather photos of all of my sexual partners, of which there were many, including boyfriends and flings, and put them into chronological order, held together with a rubber band. It wasn’t a brag book, per say, more like research—me analyzing the images for patterns in looks and personality, length of relationship, height and hair color. Not much came of it; I noticed several Geminis in the stack and an average height of 5’ 11”. Now it seems ridiculous. I was searching, desperately searching for someone like him, when he was right there, in the middle of the pile.

The photo is ours and ours alone, our memory, our original three days history. Just by holding the image, we are transposed to the younger versions of ourselves. I still can’t grasp it, that of all the wonders in the wide world, of all the great unknowns, of all the life’s surprises, that I’m now married to a guy I slept with ten years ago. The image reminds me that, like bad things, good things can happen for absolutely no reason at all. He dropped into my life—which before had been lacking—out of the clear blue sky.

More specifically, he glided in on a Boeing 747. My husband was delivered to me on the same type of jet, in that same clear blue sky, that delivered devastation just a decade before.

From our fifth floor walk-up in the West Village, we have a clear view of the Freedom tower arising, floor by floor, glass panel by glass panel. Its solid structure, beautifully lit at night, is downtown’s shining beacon. As we start our lives together, we too are trying to create a solid base, a sound structure, defining dreams while choosing furniture. I see it as a symbol of hope and rebirth. Both for us—and for future generations.

A few weeks ago we took the fifteen-minute stroll to Ground Zero. We snapped a few photos of the construction in progress as we neared the site, feeling it was a special moment in the history of our lives. Regardless of the outcome, photos capture the present. Point and shoot now. The future will reveal itself later.

The End.

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§ One Response to “Photographic Memories”

  • Dear Christie,

    While informing Madge McKeithen about my current 9/11 publication on Mr. Beller’s (Manhattan Eyeline),
    I was led to your story: Photographic Memories. Bravo! Nice Work.
    All my best,
    Jackob

§ Leave a Reply

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