10 September 2009

9-11 and The World Trade Center: Power of Pictures

Earlier this year, President Obama declared today's anniversary of the attacks at the World Trade Center to be a national day of remembrance and service. Certainly, for most if not all Americans who were alive eight years ago this day, the horrors of that tragedy, so viscerally captured on video and broadcast without reprieve, have been impossible to forget.
For those of us not near Ground Zero in New York or at the Pentagon, who did not lose a comrade, friend, or family member in those attacks or aboard Flight 93, the images of that day are what remain. Pictures have tremendous power in this respect, to evoke emotion and recollect memory --- or, as Jack Shafer at the Slate writes, to exploit audiences by reviving painful memories to sell newspapers and boost ratings. He cites several examples of 9-11 imagery easily culled by the media in their attempts to indulge readers and increase sales: a WTC survivor crying or posed beside the photo of a victim, pictures of memorials built or held, before and after snapshots of the Manhattan skyline.
And recent history would largely support Shafer's hypothesis: pictures like those have had their pronounced effect upon America's collective psyche. Still, Shafer does not distinguish between the different images of 9-11 -- or indeed, between 9-11 imagery and any those of other tragic events, national or otherwise. In his effort to paint the big picture, he overlooked a small yet significant detail. One important difference exists between the 9-11 images that, media or no, has and will continue to singularly influence America's experience of that day for the foreseeable future.
While video, photographs, paintings, and illustrations have the power to remind us of past events, they are the media of the frozen moment, of that which has already been. We are unable to interact with what we see. Photography, like all still imagery is, after all, an art of space.
The notable exception is the Manhattan Skyline in the absence of the Towers That Aren't There, the "After". Any picture taken of the cityscape today can just as easily be recreated actively -- we can scan New York's horizon ourselves, our eyes capturing what, in essence, is a living photograph. The unshakable memories of the Skyline Before invariably collide through our participation as we gaze upon the After. We exist simultaneously then and there, here and now. This unique even artistic experience powerfully maintains the status of the World Trade Center attack not as a specific historical event, but as one still happening today, existing both in space and in time.
Comics, like the sight of New York's skyline, is the only form of art that exits in space as well as in time. This October, ComicMeme will take a look back at the comic industry's unique responses and tributes to the events of September 11th, 2001.

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