PHOTO EXHIBITS AT THE BUTLER Sept. 11, in perspective
By DEBORA SHAULIS
YOUNGSTOWN -- An unidentified New York police officer and a firefighter stare into Holger Keifel's camera with similarly sad, shattered expressions. Their uniforms are dusty from the rubble of the World Trade Center. Their faces are dirt-smudged. Their eyes are bloodshot from fatigue, or anguish, or both.
On the other side of Butler Institute of American Art's second-floor Waldman Gallery, Abe Frajndlich's black and white photographs memorialize the twin towers that forever changed the New York skyline by their presence and in their absence.
The official opening of "Abe Frajndlich: Before, During & amp; After 9/11" and "Holger Keifel: Rescue Workers at the World Trade Center 9.11.01" will be Wednesday, exactly one year after the terrorist attacks on the United States.
Keifel's show was organized by the Butler with help from former Youngstowner James Pernotto, now of Pacifico Fine Arts in New York. Both exhibits will close Oct. 13.
Emphasizing the aesthetic
Photography isn't new to the Butler. "The shows that we have done have really emphasized the aesthetic," said Dr. Louis Zona, the Butler's executive director. "We've never had shows that have overwhelmed us with the meaning behind the photographs ... Maybe it's because these images are loaded for us Americans. We have very intense feelings about what happened a year ago."
It's the powerful combination of narrative and aesthetic that transforms these photos into works of art, Zona added. "Any of us can take a picture. A true artist can search out nuances, little subtleties, that make it special."
While most people watched the events of Sept. 11 unfold on television, Frajndlich and Keifel were uncomfortably close to the action. The men, both German, have lived in New York for 18 and nine years, respectively.
Recalling the day
Frajndlich was setting up that morning for a photo shoot with TV news commentator Bill O'Reilly at Chelsea Studios when he learned of the attacks. "At that point I really was in shock. My jaw was on my knees," he recalled.
He unconsciously took some photos in the hours after planes struck the twin towers. One that's part of the Butler display was taken at 10:10 a.m. on a patio at Chelsea Studios. Several people are there, and while their faces can't be seen, their focus is unmistakably on the area where the first tower had just toppled. Smoke billows from the other tower.
Frajndlich's family apartment was only 300 yards from the World Trade Center. No one was home when the attacks occurred, but dust from the collapsed buildings poured in through some open windows. Damage exceeded $20,000, and six people spent four days cleaning the apartment, he said.
Frajndlich took photos of the destruction at ground zero and of the thick coating of dust at his home. There's also a photo of a shoe store display, where ladies pumps, sandals and slides have taken on the same dirty hue. Its title, "Shoe store window, Imelda Marcos finally meets Osama bin Laden," refers to the shoe-coveting wife of former Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
"I have always felt that humor will get you through everything," Frajndlich said. "I'm not finding 9/11 in any way humorous. ... Life is about affirmation. If a little humor reaffirms life, that's all to the better."
Even photos he took of the twin towers before Sept. 11 have new meaning. Frajndlich took many photos of the buildings, not only because they were a prominent landmark, but "they collected light so beautifully that you couldn't avoid them," he said. "You couldn't make a bad picture of the Twin Towers."
One of those photos, from 1989, features a soaring bird against a backdrop of the Statue of Liberty, which was shrouded in scaffolding because of a restoration project, and the towers.
Frajndlich regrets missing one Kodak moment on Sept. 11. Before he reached the patio at Chelsea Studios, he walked around a corner where 20 or more people, with mouths agape, were gathered around a television. "I couldn't get myself to make that picture. I was walking between looking at it for real and looking at people" reacting to it, he said.
Another moment wasn't captured on film, but it's been burned into Frajndlich's memory. After the first tower had collapsed, Frajndlich turned to his assistant to say something. A man standing behind him was staring ahead as the second tower began to fall.
"I saw his eyes as it happened," Frajndlich said. "I never saw such horror in someone's face .... it was the most indelible image of fear and horror and disbelief and shock I've ever seen." Frajndlich woke up at 4 a.m. for the next two days, seeing that man's expression and being "scared out of my skin."
That wasn't a photo opportunity for Frajndlich. "Life is what it is," he said. "If I would have brought a camera up to my eyes, it would have been a different face already. By the time I turned around, the tower was down. It went very fast."
In Greenwich Village
Keifel was picking up film at a photo lab on Bleecker Street, in Greenwich Village, when the attacks began. His girlfriend called him and urged him not to go near the twin towers. He didn't have his cameras with him and decided to go home and grab some equipment, he said.
Access to the site was limited by then, and again the next day when Keifel returned with credentials from the police department.
He decided on Sept. 12 that his focus would be on people. The next morning, Keifel set up a portable studio and began photographing rescue workers as their shifts ended. He took portraits of 23 people in all, professionals and volunteers alike.
"I like to do series of things, especially portrait series," Keifel said. "With certain things, it just says much more in a series."
Five color, poster-size prints of his photos are at the Butler. Besides the police officer and firefighter, there's a black, dreadlocked asbestos worker with beads of sweat across his nose and cheeks from the eye and air masks that have been pushed away from his face. A brown-skinned, dark-haired trauma physician -- perhaps of Asian Indian background, Keifel surmised -- appears to be tired, while an Ecuadorian woman who volunteered was wearing makeup.
Keifel is glad that the photos reflect the spectrum he witnessed. "I like that a lot about America," he said. "Everybody chips in when it comes down to it ... it says a lot about this country."
Keifel's photographs of rescue workers are also part of the "Here Is New York" project that began last fall in a Soho storefront and on the Internet. Professional and amateur photographers supplied the images, and prints of their work have been sold to raise proceeds for Children's Aid Society WTC Relief Fund. Last Keifel knew, $1 million had been raised, he said. A companion book is being published this month.
Keifel will be at the Butler on Wednesday. He's eager to receive feedback on his work.
"Maybe it's even good to be outside of New York" that day, he said. "We all know what happened. ... Sometimes you have to step back and look at it from a different perspective."
Frajndlich will remain in New York. "I think I'll go out to the streets and take pictures," he said of his plans for Wednesday. "I don't really know what the pictures are until I get there. The moment will dictate the image."