Past Pixels: 9/11, Photography and Remembrance

You're not just looking at a photo of a firefighter standing on the rubble of the World Trade Center, looking up at the sky while the world burns around him. You're looking at the limits of digital imaging technology in September 2001.

Click on the photo to see it at full size.

Joel Johnson and I wrote the cover story of American Photo this month, along with the magazine's editor, Scott Alexander. There are basically an infinite number of ways to look back at 9/11, and we did so through a very particular frame: through the eyes of the photographers who documented it, the men and women who had no choice but to stand, unflinching, and watch and record the most horrific event to happen on American soil in over 50 years. So that we could remember it this week. And next week. And every other week after that.

It's strange to think about this way, but 9/11 was perhaps the twilight of a certain kind of news coverage. It was pre-Facebook. Pre-Twitter. Pre-YouTube and iPhone. Before it was possible for thousands of people to record, upload, and distribute tens of thousands of photos and videos, all crystal clear, packed with pixels and metadata and in HD, to millions of other people. The way we remember 9/11, visually, is largely the way professional media documented it—the tiny trove of images and video recorded by professional photographers and broadcast cameras. People Carmen Taylor—a tourist and amateur photographer who happened to snap an iconic photo of the second plane just as it crashed into the tower using a bulky Sony Mavica that used floppy disks like film—was the exception, not the rule.

The photos we know—the images of broken, bloody and dust-covered bodies, fire and stone and ash, abject terror—are like the one above, taken by the New York Daily News' Todd Maisel. They're the record of what happened that day. But each of those photos is just one cropped frame. One choice made by the photographer, one instinctual response. One moment. What we don't consider is everything else the photographer sees, everything they're attempting to channel into those million or so pixels. Or perhaps not channel, to keep us safe from horrors no human being should see. But they saw them, because they needed to show the world what happened. Those are some of the stories they told Joel and I.

They also told us about the technology. By 2001, digital photography had just become good enough for pro photojournalists—and for a lot of them, that meant one camera: The Nikon D1, originally released in 1999. It shot 2.7-megapixel photos, like Maisel's up top. What follows is a tiny excerpt from our transcripts from the full story at American Photo, with each of the amazing photographers we talked to detailing the tools they used to document that day.

David Handschuh, NYDN: Nikon D1. That was like my third digital camera. I was the first full-time, all-digital photographer in New York—since 1993, by the way. "It's a passing fancy. Nobody'll go for this digital stuff." I think I had two D1s, Nikon D1s, and I usually carried a 17–35, a 24–70, an 80–200. I think I had my 300 also.

Todd Maisel, NYDN: I had D1s. I had two D1s.

Spencer Platt, Getty: I was totally green to digital. I mean, we all were. I was using a Nikon. I'd have to double-check it, but I think it was called like the D1. It was one of their first kind of generation professional digital cameras. But it's amazing how the files held up from those days. I'd probably been shooting digital for a couple months at that time, if that. I'm still shocked that I had everything, like the right aperture, because it was still very foreign to me, that camera.

Gulnara Samoilova, AP: I was using a film camera and I was shooting black and white but I did have one roll of color film, which I didn't know I had in the bag. So when I switched the film [at Ground Zero], I didn't even notice that. I was not a staff photographer at the time. I just grabbed my personal camera.

Carmen Taylor: Sony Mavica. It wasn't brand new. I had learned digital photography where I worked, and they have a Sony Mavica, that's what I learned on, so I bought one for myself. In '01 this was not a new camera, this was about a year old model.

Allen Tannenbaum: I was using a Canon EOS-D30, which was I think the first digital SLR that Canon came out with. And I was using EOS-1, which was a film camera. So I was shooting both chrome and digital.

Mario Tama, Getty: I grabbed what Getty had kind of issued to us, which I think back then were like D30s or something, one of the original Canon D bodies. So it was two bodies and one was a 70-200 and the wide was a Sigma 14, I think. That was my kit. I threw my laptop in my backpack and I remember trying to grab extra batteries and all the disks that I had. Back then we were shooting 256K disks or something, which would just be absurd now. It would hold like five pictures today.

Yoni Brook, Washington Post: All my stuff was like expired, expired, like old Fuji 800 that Bob Deutsch from USA Today gave me. Because I was assisting him and helping him shoot sports, so he'd be like, "You want a brick of film?" I was like, "Yeah I want a brick of film." "It's from '92, but it's been in my fridge. It seems to be fine." That's all I had.

Thomas Dallal: I put my 2x doubler in the bag. You go through the motions when you go to do different jobs. I was an equipment whore. I used to shoot with three systems: I was a Contax, Leica, and Canon shooter. So I've got my Leica. I've got my Canon with an 80-200mm with a 2x doubler. And I think I probably didn't not bring my Contax, just two Canon bodies and a Leica. I throw this stuff in a bag, throw my clothes on. Walk down the stairs.

The full four-part story, "9/11: The Photographers' Stories," an oral history of 9/11 told by the photographers themselves is at American Photo, and there'll be free iPad app version of the story coming soon. [American Photo]

Photo by Todd Maisel/NYDN used with permission