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'History Responds': Moving Exhibition of September 11 Photos - 2001-11-23

The New York Historical Society wants to be the chief repository of primary research documenting the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The museum launched its "History Responds" project with a moving exhibition of photographs taken by photo-journalists from the prestigious Magnum photographers agency. The photos are the first exhibition in a developing collection of material related to the disaster that altered New York City's famous skyline.

The "History Responds" project of the New York Historical Society developed within a week of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center. The Society wanted to insure that the historical records of the tragedy, and the heroism of September 11, would be preserved for future generations.

New York Historical Society President Kenneth Jackson says this is difficult history, but as fresh and painful as it is, it needs to be recorded. "Something like this, people want to feel it, want to see it, want to experience it, want to study it, want to remember it now. And I think a historical society should suggest to people that we are ready to respond now," he says. "It doesn't have to be dusty, it doesn't have to be old, it doesn't have to be boring to be history."

The first exhibition in the "History Responds" project includes photos taken on September 11 and in the two weeks following by five Magnum photographers, as well as a 25 minute video shot within minutes of the attack by an independent cameraman.

The international photo agency held its monthly meeting on the evening of September 10, and a dozen of its best photographers happened to be in New York. The next morning the photographers were on the scene documenting the attack.

Magnum photographer Thomas Hoepker says the story came to them, and it was too powerful to just give away. In the Magnum offices two days after the attack, he conceived a book just published in conjunction with the exhibition. "I was looking at the images that were lying on the light boxes and that were being scanned and were on the computer monitors and it struck me immediately, this is so strong," he says. "The material is so overpowering and intense. We have to do something more than just give it to magazines and newspapers as we normally do."

And then Magnum called the New York Historical Society. The Society had not planned to open an exhibition in the "History Responds" project until early next year, but Mr. Jackson saw an opportunity to be proactive about the World Trade Center disaster. He says this was a perfect fit. "Magnum did approach us about that particular show," he says. "We might not have done that one, we might have waited until February, but in that case, they were going to do this show and they would have done it somewhere and we thought, well… it's about New York and it's about history and that's what we do."

The photographs in the show are not easy to look at but they are awesome. Massive prints of the World Trade Center being attacked, one in which one tower still stands, the other missing; large photos of anonymous New Yorkers running away from the disaster; a heart-wrenching image of a firefighter sticking his head in a spray of water for relief; and a child holding a hand-written sign saying "Support our Troops," are just a few of the incredible photos on display.

The exhibition also includes a video-installment from freelance cameraman Evan Fairbanks who happened to be on the scene and called Magnum with his services.

Mr. Fairbanks was producing a video for Trinity Church on the morning of September 11 a few blocks away from the World Trade Center. He looked out the window, grabbed his still camera and was on his way out the door. "I was just going out with my still equipment and the production manager at Trinity Church was putting a tape in a video camera in the hallway as I was leaving and I just looked down at him and he looked up at me and put the camera out and said, "Do you want this?" And I realized that I should take it," he says.

And take it he did. The video is one of the highlights in the exhibition. Still pictures were extracted from the video and included in the book "New York September 11 by Magnum Photographers."

The New York Historical Society will continue with its "History Responds" project and has scheduled various events going through the end of 2002. But the project itself will be a permanent addition to the society and to New York history.