Photographing the aftermath of September 11 is an overwhelming task, but John Jonas Gruen has more than met the challenge. Such challenges are many, of course, but barriers include getting to sites, deciding what to shoot and, most saliently, determining what themes should be highlighted. Arrangement is also important: should the pictures be chronological, spatial or cause and effect?
We don’t know Gruen’s original intent; the exhibit is effectively curated by Christina Strassfield who no doubt selected from a large batch of work. There is no one focus. In fact, there are several themes, including pictures of American icons, Ground Zero, posters of missing people, shrines and police/firemen. In the end, we assume the varied locations and subjects add up to one theme: September 11 is not just one happening but many simultaneous events, each one having special meaning.
This mixture evokes diverse reactions as we look at the photographs. First, we can’t help but laugh at the picture showing a big American flag mounted on a building; the logo “Dunkin Donuts” appears at the bottom. No longer is “Apple Pie” an icon for all that America stands for. Another flag is hung on a Chase Bank Building, the structural icon conveying rich America that apparently really annoys our enemies. A statue of George Washington in Union Square represents a similar symbol.
Certain pictures are heartbreaking and not at all ironic, like the various images of missing persons. One is particularly wrenching: “Have you seen my Daddy?” is written with a child’s scrawl, contrasting sharply with a slick sign hung across a bridge in Chelsea (“Our thoughts are with those affected by the recent tragedy”).
Other subjects are less emotional, including those dealing with services or individuals on the job, like signs at St. Vincent’s Hospital, a policeman and trucks at Ground Zero and National Guardsmen walking down the street in a row. The line formation brings back a memory of this critic’s cousin who had just become a New York fireman. His supervisor said he couldn’t help because he was inexperienced, but my young relative prevailed. He was “on the line” when one of the first survivors was rescued.
Lastly, some images show small shrines with candles and pictures; one specific photo has objects draped on a religious statue in Columbus Circle. It’s interesting that objects are defining the tragedy. In fact, Gruen has avoided people almost altogether. If figures are in the photographs they are indistinct: two nuns have their backs to us; the National Guardsmen are almost faceless. Moreover, George Washington is in the form of a statue.
What is Gruen’s ultimate message (at least featuring the photographs in the exhibit)?
Did he decide to avoid the personal aspects, concentrating instead on the subtle and philosophical messages? Whatever his purposes, the work is a worthy document of September 11 as seen though the eyes of a fine arts photographer.
John Jonas Gruen’s images will be on view at East Hampton’s Guild Hall (158 Main Street) in the Boots Lamb Education Center. 631-324-0806. www.guildhall.org.