Sunday Focus: Joe McNally and the Faces of Ground Zero
The sky was falling and streaked with blood
I heard you calling me then you disappeared into the dust
Up the stairs, into the fire
Up the stairs, into the fire
I need your kiss, but love and duty called you someplace higher
Somewhere up the stairs into the fire….
- Into the Fire, Bruce Springsteen, from The Rising
Sometimes it’s hard to believe it happened 10 years ago already. Sometimes it’s hard to believe it didn’t happen just yesterday.
Sometimes it’s hard to believe 9/11 even happened at all.
There are a number of things I’ll remember from that time. I was working for a pharmaceutical company back then, and living in Central New Jersey, about an hour from NYC. I remember my boss at the time coming into my office, on a beautiful early fall day, saying “A plane just hit the World Trade Center. It’s on CNN.” I remember going into his office to watch…and watching as reports broke that another plane hit the WTC.
I remember dust and rubble. I remember all of us there at work just not sure what was happening.
I remember, as I was driving home later that day, American flags flying at half mast. I remember going back to my apartment, walking my dog, still under an impossibly gorgeous sky, and then pouring myself a glass of Jack Daniels and watching the news for the rest of the night.
Fast forward a few months. I’m on the road, doing some corporate photo shoots with Joe McNally. I had known him for a couple of years at that point, and was always happy to get to work with him again (though my passion for photography hadn’t broken the surfaced yet.) I remember being somewhere in the Midwest with Joe and his assistant, and him telling me about this portrait project he did in the days right after 9/11..had something to do with a huge Polaroid camera.
Then came the first showing of the exhibit in NYC in 2002. Joe invited me to come see the opening. Joe, others, made speeches. Jewel sang. It was a big night out for me and this gal I was seeing then. I shot some crappy images with a 1.2 megapixel digital camera. (see above, regarding passion for photography item…)
NYC was rebounding.
Fast forward even further…ten years down the road… the gal I took to that opening is now my wife. People have married and divorced. Babies have been born, and children have grown up under the cloak of terrorism and war. We got Osama. NYC continues to rebound.
Joe is now blogging and tweeting. And he keeps shooting.
The portraits Joe shot soon after 9/11 continue to live on and draw inspiration. With the exhibit opening again this Wednesday, with some new portraits and video interviews included, I wanted to find out from Joe what has changed in the last 10 years, and what has stayed the same.
So, enough with this long preamble to the good stuff. Read on….
JSP Q: Take me back to 2001….after 9/11, how did you conceive this project and how did it all come about?
JM: In the days immediately after the attacks, I was home, with the kids. Like everyone, I was a mixture and a mess of various feelings and sensations – sorrow, shock, anger, confusion. Being a photog, there was also that part of me that was screaming to get the cameras and just go there. But I didn’t. I couldn’t have added much at all to the immediate photographic record that was being compiled by the hundreds of photographers already on the streets of lower Manhattan. I stayed at home and tried to come up with some way of making a contribution, and harked back to this camera I had used once, a very singular, one of kind camera that made huge, instant photos – the world’s only giant Polaroid camera the brainchild of Dr. Land himself.
Fortuitously, it was located in a studio not too far from Ground Zero, and very near several FDNY firehouses that had suffered losses. I had the notion that this particular camera, which renders people life size, with a great deal of formality and stature, might be an appropriate instrument to use to document the people whose lives had intersected with 9/11 in dramatic fashion. I secured funding almost immediately, from Time-Life. We moved into the camera within about 10 days of the event, and started to work. All the shooting was completed within a month or so. During that month, I lived at the studio, sleeping in a loft bed over the camera, rarely straying more than a few blocks from it. We were taking crews from the pit at 2 a.m., 12 noon, late at night, you name it. We told everyone – if you come to the studio, we will take your picture.
Ladder Nine, Engine 33 was the first firehouse to come by. Word of mouth spread pretty rapidly about this project, and this giant camera. Ultimately the effort came to be known as Faces of Ground Zero, and it became a book and a traveling exhibit that assisted in the raising of nearly $2 million dollars for the relief effort. This is the core of the show that will be on the floor of the Time Warner Center, 10 years later.
JSP Q: You’re including a number of new portraits and interviews for the new showing of the Faces of Ground Zero. I know you’ve kept in touch with some of your Faces portraits subjects, like Louie Cacchioli, over the past 10 years. Have you kept in touch with others?
JM: Yes, quite a number. I’m a “friend of the house” at a couple NYC firehouses, and I do photography for them when they have things like medal days etc. I’m close with a few people, and families. Doing this update 10 years later has been a welcome excuse to reach out to all these people again. They’re an amazing, resilient group of folks.
JSP Q: What were some of your biggest challenges working on the project back then and what were some of the challenges this time around?
JM: A big challenge back then was simply trying to not sound like an unhinged lunatic on the phone with people. I mean, imagine getting a call during this highly emotional, stressed time period from someone you don’t know, trying to convince you to come to some outlandish, giant camera on the lower east side of NY. People were in shock, people had experienced grievous losses. The idea of coming to pose for a photo sounded ridiculous, even to me. But I think what overrode other feelings was people’s need at the time to be part of something, to tell their story, and to have a voice. The project gave them a dignified way of doing that.
So our success rate of persuading people to come to the camera was very high, indeed. The cumbersome nature of the giant Polaroid actually played in my favor here. Every sheet I used cost $300. So when people asked those familiar questions, “How long will this take? How many pictures are you going to shoot?” I could honestly say that it wouldn’t take long at all, because I would only make one picture. And that proved to be true, most of the time.
Challenges this time around involved updating the show with a series of photos that have power and clarity all on their own, and speak to the person’s life now, ten years later. Additionally, we did video interviews as well, so there’s an additional component to the visual reporting that we have done. The new photos have to compete with their very large counterparts, all these years later, in terms of interest and pictorial power. That was a big challenge.
JSP Q: Any surprises this time around?
JM: No real surprises, I would say, maybe more of a refreshing feeling of relief. I knew right from the get go, from back in 2001, that these were very strong people. And sure enough, here they are 10 years on, still strong, still doing their jobs, still being who they are. They were not crushed by 9/11. There’s an enormous sense of the positive they exude. Ten years of raising kids, fighting fires, doing their work, helping other people – the power of life ongoing is very strong. I remain in awe of the whole bunch.
JSP Q: It seems as though you have special connection with the people that you shot for this project. Do you expect to continue shooting portraits to for this project?
JM: Yes, I hope to. We will continue, and also continue our efforts to raise money for the support of the collection as it makes its’ transition to the 9/11 Memorial Museum, where it will reside in perpetuity.
It has been a bit of a saga, for me, as a lone freelance photographer, to shepherd this project for the last decade. But, it is a part of me, and I owe a great deal to the subjects of the project to safeguard their images, and to continue.
I guess to me, photographs have always been, very importantly, about memory, and the preservation thereof. Hence I continue to preserve these pictures and add to it as time goes on.
JSP Q: What’s next for Joe McNally?
JM: I would imagine, the next picture, the same way it has been for the last 35 years.
Joe McNally and I have known each other for over 10 years now – first as business associates, then as friends. I’ve never asked him to be part of the my little Sunday Focus’. While he’s given me equal parts encouragement and inspiration towards my passion for photography, I never wanted to intrude on his time or play off that friendship for one of these posts.
But this one is a little different. I want to try to help get the word out about the new Faces of Ground Zero exhibit, so I asked Joe if he’d do this interview. I appreciate Joe taking the time to answer these questions in such a thoughtful manner. It was more than I expected, frankly, but then again, Joe doesn’t do anything halfway.
Nikon Inc. is the exclusive photographic equipment sponsor of the Faces of Ground Zero – 10 Years Later exhibit at the Time Warner Center. The free exhibit will take place from August 24 to September 12, 2011, and is open from 10:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. Monday – Saturday and from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. on Sunday.
If you’re in the city and you get to see the exhibit, stop back here to let us know what you thought about it. Or if you Tweet about it, hashtag it #FGZ so that we can find it. It’s going to be powerful, I’m sure.
© Mark V. Krajnak 2011 | JerseyStyle Photography | All rights Reserved
Unless otherwise noted, images captured with a Canon 50D, SanDisk digital film, finished with PS4 or PSE6 and Nik Software.