This month's guest blog post comes from friend of the blog Larry Racioppo and Amy Weinstein. First is Larry's contribution followed by Amy's.
On February 19, 2002, I met Jan Ramirez, the vice president and director of the New York Historical Society's museum, at St. Paul’s Chapel, the oldest church building in Manhattan. Soon after the 9/11 attacks she helped to launch History Responds. As part of this series, she commissioned me to photograph the Chapel’s wrought-iron fence which ran north along Broadway from Fulton Street to Vesey Street. Thousands of New Yorkers and out-of-town visitors were transforming the fence into a spontaneous memorial to the victims of the World Trade Center attack. They posted banners, posters, personalized t-shirts, flags, letters, religious items, and many other mementos that held significant personal meaning.
I had photographed memorials and RIP walls dedicated to victims of the 9/11 attacks in Brooklyn and Queens, but had not seen anything as intense or as large at this fence.
There was an incredible accretion of layer upon layer of materials. Some older flyers and notes dated back to the days immediately after the collapse of the Twin Towers when people thought that their loved ones might have gone missing in the chaos, but were still alive. These hopeful flyers, with photos and descriptions of clothing, were soon covered over by tributes and memorials to the first responders, and calls for unity and patriotism. With NYHS’ Assistant Curator Amy Weinstein running interference, we moved north slowly. I stopped 14 times to make a series of overlapping photographs with my 4 x 5 inch view camera.
The chapel’s interior was also transformed. Groups and individuals across the USA sent huge banners and objects, which placed throughout the chapel. Jan asked me to photograph this transformation as well.
As recovery work began just across the street at GROUND ZERO, rescue workers,police, and firefighters stopped by the chapel to rest and regroup. Long, exhausting shifts prevented many workers from going home, and the chapel opened its doors, becoming a haven for them. In the first three months following September 11, more than 3,000 workers passed through the chapel’s gates. Police officers, Port Authority workers, firefighters, National Guardsmen, construction and sanitation crews, engineers and technicians all found their way to St. Paul’s. As the recovery progressed, volunteers served meals, gave out clothes, and set up beds in the choir loft. Professional therapists gave massages in George Washington’s original pew, and string quartets performed calming music. Jan expanded my work to include photographing these activities also.
Jan and I agreed that in addition to the volunteers, the people who came to St. Paul’s for warm food and companionship, to pray or just rest should be photographed as well. We asked anyone who wished to be photographed to come to the front of the Chapel where I had set up two strobe lights. Folks came solo or with a friend or two.
I felt an amazing sense of purpose and commitment here -- everyone just wanted to DO SOMETHING to make things better after the losses on 9/11. I haven’t had that feeling in America for some time.
-Larry Racioppo, Rockaway, NY
NOTE: Fifty of these photographs are being exhibited at the Museum of Friends in Walsenburg, Colorado, September 3rd through December 30th, 2022. An essay by Amy Weinstein accompanies the exhibit. https://www.museumoffriends.org
This is Amy Weinstein's contribution:
Long interested in the intersections of public and private spaces during significant moments in time, New York City based photographer Larry Racioppo spent three days in late February and early March 2002 documenting historic activity inside and outside St. Paul’s Chapel. A landmarked architectural fixture of Lower Manhattan listed on the National Register of Historic Places, St. Paul’s Chapel has been a gathering place for worshippers ranging from George Washington to those who work in the financial district. Construction of the Georgian style chapel predated its similarly iconic neighbor, the World Trade Center, by about 200 years. When the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center were stuck by two hijacked airplanes on September 11, 2001, the Chapel and those who entered it assumed new historical significance and drew Racioppo’s attention as a documentary photographer.
In the days and weeks that followed 9/11, it seemed as though the eyes of the world were fixated on Ground Zero. Photographers patrolled the perimeter, searching for any crack in the security cordon isolating the disaster scene. Round-the-clock efforts by uniformed personnel, construction workers, and others was concerned with the search for bodies of those whose remains lay beneath a mountain of steel wreckage. But for Larry Racioppo, it was the perimeter itself that demanded photographic documentation; not the police barricades or chain link fencing that shifted every so often as work progressed, but the chapel’s wrought-iron fence that stretched along Broadway, between Fulton and Vesey Streets, separating church and city. About six or seven feet tall, the fence quickly became the place where those offering condolences could place flowers, flags, candles, notes, and other tributes. Soon messages of support for the workers at Ground Zero joined the sympathy materials left by members of the public and family members visiting the site where their loved ones had been killed. Racioppo’s camera captured the sweeping grandeur and intimate detail of those hopeful memorial gestures. Ephemeral in nature, those objects and messages remained in place for months, becoming a near-permanent indicator of the love and support that poured into New York. Photographing the makeshift memorial created along the city-block long fence required Racioppo to look at the fence as a whole and in sections. It would have been impossible to capture in its entirety thing if he was to position his camera close enough to the fence so that those who looked at the image could properly see the tributes and feel their impact. With the entire city block as his studio, he methodically documented the physical presence and emotionality of the place on a single day.
Photography anywhere near Ground Zero was frowned upon by many in authority, even six months after the attack. Making those timely, carefully composed photographs required Racioppo to secure an unofficial endorsement from St. Paul’s and its parent, Trinity Parish. He did so through the New-York Historical Society, which had developed a relationship with church officials and volunteers through its own efforts to document and archive activity at the Chapel following 9/11. With his camera pointed at the fence and the chapel it protected, Racioppo nevertheless noticed a diversity of people moving past the enclosure, toward the Chapel’s exterior porch and into the building, and wondered about their purpose.
Massive wooden doors strapped with iron weren’t sufficient to keep out the curious or those who sought to say a prayer or pay their respects inside the church. Volunteer sentinels granted entry only to those who carried World Trade Center credentials and sent everyone else to the public viewing platform overlooking Ground Zero. With his endorsement from the N-YHS, Racioppo was granted admission to the historic interior. Racioppo took his time taking the scene in—the soaring ceilings, marble busts, oil paintings, a piano, the altar, and the pews. Banners painted with heartfelt messages and images of love and hope hung from the balcony. Tables laden with coffee urns and trays of comfort food and gourmet sandwiches were staffed by smiling men and women, eager to make sure that those coming in for a break from dangerous work on the mountain of steel wreckage could have a bite to eat in peace before returning to the disaster site. Many ate their meals in the pews, sitting next to teddy bears placed there to offer added comfort. Often, they took a few extra moments to read one or two of the thousands of children’s drawings and letters placed virtually every place they looked. Racioppo walked among the pews, read the cards, and examined tables heaped with work gloves and other supplies before setting up his camera and preparing his characteristic long exposures. His mission was to document the historic interior and the chapel’s relief function without interfering with the workers who sought respite there. He succeeded in revealing the strange juxtapositions of sacred and secular objects and the church’s repurposed function, all the while respecting the sanctity of the place and the privacy of the people. Nevertheless, he couldn’t help but attract attention from some who stopped to watch him work and ask questions about his mission and methods.
A strong desire to put people into the picture motivated Racioppo to seek and gain approval for a third day of photographing at St. Paul’s Chapel. As a new curator at the New-York Historical Society, I had served as Racioppo’s photo assistant outside on Broadway and inside of the Chapel, answering questions and making sure that no one inadvertently was photographed. We worked together again as Racioppo made portraits of police officers, firefighters, iron workers, and EMTs. We shared the task of inviting people to participate in the portrait project, making them feel comfortable that the resulting photographs would be honest and respectful. Racioppo’s rapport with his potential subjects was evident from the start. I filled a notebook with pages of names and stories of where each had been on 9/11, what they had been doing at Ground Zero, notes about their uniforms and badges, and details about their union affiliation. Some were victim’s family members as well as firefighters or police officers, looking for missing relatives and comrades. Their jargon was new to both of us, but we carefully noted who was a lieutenant, an officer, their precincts, and their firehouses—whether engine or ladder. Eric Wiley was a “burner,” someone who uses torches to burn metal to make it easier to move beams; he wore a green hard hat and had been on-site since mid-September. A group of three firefighters from Ladder 33 in the Bronx posed together: Lt. Matthew Jankowsi flanked by Firefighters Robert McGrath and Jay Walsh. Another trio of firefighters from the Bronx were Stan Avile of Engine 43, Tom Mirante of Engine 97, and Jimmy Scheer of Ladder 46. They stood together for their portrait and had been working together at Ground Zero since 9/11. Police Officer Derrick Bishop started delivering supplies to Ground Zero on September 12 before being deployed to Pier 94, where New York City offered a variety of services to 9/11 family members. His ultimate duty station was at the ramp leading to the public viewing platform that overlooked Ground Zero. Officer Bishop was one of many members of the NYPD’s Community Affairs unit; Kathleen Price-Skrzy and Captain Cassidy were among the others to have their portraits made by Racioppo.
Some of the subjects stood quietly as Racioppo carefully framed his shot and made the portrait. Others described their 12-hour shifts, early work on bucket brigades to move debris in search of survivors, and digging by hand when they thought they might have found someone. Jorge Mojica, a member of the Local 608 Carpenters Union, mentioned that he’d been at Ground Zero for about two and a half months, building platforms and ladders for firefighters to use while climbing down into the wreckage. Employees of OSHA, volunteers with the Salvation Army, and laborers with Local 79 explained components of their work. Numbers on fire helmets would prove useful as the photo sessions often had to happen quickly while firefighters paused only briefly on their way back to the pile. Tom Delgrosso of Ladder 58, Eric Sprauer of Engine 45 and Jerry O’Riordan of Ladder 50 had been working together for months and were eager to return. Fabric patches with logos and adhesive stickers on helmets also offered clues to the sitters’ identities. But, no matter what their affiliation, mission, or task, all of those who had their portraits taken had one thing in common—a certain look in their eyes that silently spoke volumes about what they had seen and couldn’t yet talk about.
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