"[This book] embodies the Buddhist wisdom about change, life, and the
world more than anything written after the events of that day."
November 2006 Archives
« Previous · Home · Next »
November 27, 2006
A PHOTO MYSTERY: SOLVED
From Teuvo Lehti, a Finnish retiree, serious amateur photographer, and former United Nations employee now living in France….
To: Farrar, Straus & Giroux (publishers)
I had visited the Twin Towers [in 1999]. While on the observation deck of one of the towers, I took a photo of what looks like a maintenance worker on a balcony of the other tower.
Later it struck me that this man might have perished in the tragedy, and I made an Internet search of his employer on the basis of the company logo clearly visible on his shirt. My thought was that if he proved to be one of the victims, his family might wish to have a copy of the picture. On the other hand, if – as I very much hope – he survived, I thought he might wish to have it as a souvenir.
PHOTO BY TEUVO LEHTI
(Lehti's letter continues...) The company, ABM Engineering Services, seems to be a large one, with operations in several parts of New York, as well as elsewhere in the United States. I contacted the company in question and explained my business but, alas, despite more than one letter and e-mail I received no reply….
I am now wondering whether you could help me to get in touch with the author of [Watching the World Change], in hope that in the course of his research he might have established contacts that might be helpful in this regard. My motives remain those stated above.
Any help that you and eventually Mr. Friend might be able to give me will be very much appreciated.
BLOW-UP FROM PHOTO BY TEUVO LEHTI
PHOTO COURTESY OF THE CAMAJ FAMILY
In fact, this is the face of Roko Camaj, who unfortunately did not survive the September 11 attacks.
Camaj, 60 years old at the time, typically spent a good part of his workday operating the automated system that cleaned the windows of the Trade Center. On occasion, as he would do on the day that Teuvo Lehti photographed him, Camaj would have to walk outside and complete the job himself—dangling 1,300 feet above the Manhattan skyline. “The windows on the 107th floor,” according to Time magazine, “could not accommodate the [remote-cleaning] machine, and he would attend to them manually, suspended from a harness.”
Having remembered Camaj’s photo from Time, I tracked down his son Vincent, who granted me permission to reprint the photo. Vincent will soon receive a copy of the Lehti’s photo.
The New York Times would write about Roko Camaj in its “Portraits of Grief” section: “His son, Vincent, said his father loved his job and considered it an escape. ‘He’d always say, It was me and the sky up here. I bother no one, and no one bothers me.’ Mr. Camaj…had just returned home from a vacation to Montenegro, a birthday present from his daughter. All five Camaj brothers, most of them scattered around the globe, had taken the voyage together. ‘It was a great pleasure,’ [his brother] Kole Camaj said. ‘Everyone was so happy.’”
Wrote Michele Orecklin, in Time magazine: “On days off, Camaj, a Roman Catholic Albanian,…liked to keep things clean and orderly around the house, mowing the grass, renovating the kitchen and, above all, spending time with his family, from whom he originally hid the nature of his risky job. When he started work at the World Trade Center in 1973, he told his wife he worked inside. He called her at 9:14 a.m. [on September 11, 2001] from the 105th floor of the south tower. ‘He told my mom he was with about 200 other people, and he was just waiting for the O.K. to head down,’ says Vincent. ‘He told her not to worry, we’re all in God’s hands.’”
November 26, 2006
RFK, 9/11, AND THE ANCIENT SAGES
This morning New York Times columnist David Brooks has a moving piece about Robert Kennedy (the subject of Emilio Estevez's new film, Bobby) and how RFK dealt with his grief over the 1963 assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy. Often, RFK would refer to a passage from Aeschylus's Agamemnon that appeared in Edith Hamilton's book The Greek Way. Kennedy, Brooks observes, "carried his beaten, underlined and annotated copy around with him for years, pulling it from his pocket, [and] reading sections aloud to audiences in what [RFK biographer Evan] Thomas calls 'a flat, unrhythmic voice with a mournful edge.'"
The point of Brooks's essay is to underscore the fact that too few of us, and too few of our leaders, pay attention to history in times of peril so as to gain the strength that comes from perspective and experience. (My apologies for not providing a link since the Times Select Web feature seems to block a direct link to columnists' pieces unless readers are pre-registered.) "The story of Kennedy's grief," writes Brooks, "is the story of a man stepping out of his time and fetching from the past a sturdier ethic.... And the lesson, of course, is about the need to step outside your own immediate experience into the past, to learn about the problems that never change, and bring back some of that inheritance. The leaders who founded the country were steeped in the classics, Kennedy found them in crisis, and today's students are lucky if they stumble upon them by happenstance."
It so happens that this very passage from Aeschylus (see below) was the same one that RFK would read at Martin Luther King, Jr.'s funeral in 1968, just two months before Kennedy himself would be assassinated. And it is that key passage--from Edith Hamilton's translation of Agamemnon--that on September 12, 2001, would inspire the most important curatorial effort, photographically speaking, to have been mounted in response to the 9/11 attacks: the exhibition and archive called "Here Is New York."
How do Brooks, Aeschylus, Robert Kennedy, 9/11, and photography connect? Please read this passage from Watching the World Change, pages 80-81):
"On Wednesday, [September 12], Michael Shulan, a journalist and writer, germinated the idea for a 9/11 photo show and fund-raising effort--right in the window of his writer's studio at 116 Prince Street in SoHo, a few blocks north of where the two towers had stood.
"[That morning] he happened to see a fragment of verse that someone had stuck to the wall of the building next door. The lines, by the ancient Greek dramatist Aeschylus, had been copied out in Magic Marker across a page torn from the September 10 New York Times classifieds. The passage, based on Edith Hamilton's translation of the tragic play Agamemnon, read: '[Even] in our sleep, pain which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.'
"The lines embodied the essence of tragedy: through our despair we find our transcendent salvation. It was a message astutely resurrected during turmoil: the Lord would see to it that, given time, our sorrow would enlighten us. It was the same passage, in fact, that Senator Robert F. Kennedy would cite in April 1968 after civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated. (Two months later, Kennedy himself would be gunned down, his assailant intent on bringing global attention to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East...)
"Shulan was inspired by the text, and by the directness and anonymity of the medium--one stranger, through graffiti from the ancient Greeks, had touched another. In response, he ferreted through some old files in search of a shard of his own that might serve [to inspire other strangers]. Shulan found an old picture of the twin towers that he'd once bought at a flea market. He placed it in the front window of the vacant storefront.
"That single photograph, in a street-level window, began to draw a crowd. People congregated, stared, then moved on. Spurred on by the encouragement of a friend, the photographer Gilles Peress, Shulan added more pictures. Other friends then brought him their own images of the towers and the day. Within two weeks the impromptu display was a living, evolving photo exhibition, shot by neighbors and out-of-towners, amateurs and professionals....
"[Shulan and his fellow curators, Peress, Alice Rose George, and Charles Traub] called their exhibition, "here is new york," in deferential lower-case type. The title was taken from an essay by E. B. White about the city's vulnerability after World War II..."
In time, thousands would flock to Shulan's storefront to offer up their own photographs, to pore over the pictures, to seek comfort and meaning in their grief. The exhibition, which would raise substantial donations for the Children's Defense Fund, would become an 800-page book and a database of some 8,000 photos that, to this day, remains the single most comprehensive and significant collection of still imagery related to the attacks and their aftermath.
And it was all inspired by a few lines of text from the ancient Greeks affixed to a wall by someone hoping to offer solace and wisdom.
November 25, 2006
This was sent recently from James Paul Colligan, a Catholic priest, journalist, and sometime photographer…
I often wander with a camera when I can find time. New York City always provides photo ops. On October 7 , I meandered south from the neighborhood of Grand Central. I happened to have a 50-200mm lens on my Nikon D70 camera when I spotted across the street the two guys with the "Inside Job" sign (a few blocks south of Union Square.)
PHOTO BY JAMES PAUL COLLIGAN
Rather than get closer to the two guys using another lens, I was content that the long lens allowed me to include foot and vehicle traffic. The guys were not in hiding. A convenient railing at a subway entrance served to steady the camera, though this might have looked to them like I was hiding.
"No one," I replied. "Only for my own interest."
In a follow-up e-mail, I asked Jim Colligan to tell me a bit about his life. His response…
I am a practicing Catholic priest (Maryknoll Missioner), journalist and pro[fessional] photographer. (Helluva way to make a living.) I help out regularly at the Japanese parish in Little Tokyo and occasionally am asked to sub for a priest at the nearby cathedral. After ten years in language study and parish assignments in Japan, I was asked by my superior there in 1966 if I would consider journalism as a career path (I had been doing words and pictures on my free time for Maryknoll publications in the U.S.) I said yes but I [had] no journalism training. So I went to Syracuse U's Newhouse School for three semesters and a journalism Master's.
I was most happy to be elected by correspondents as chairman for three separate years of the Foreign Press in Japan (FPIJ), which had me meeting with Japanese officials and media people over coverage of news events, and supervising pool assignments. (I escaped the latter with my scalp.) FCCJ was a home away from home.
In 1997 I was recalled to the States (a story in itself). Choosing to live in L.A. where, among other priorities, I might find occasion to use my Japanese language, I am here today. Based in a rented apartment. Until September when a Japanese priest came from Tokyo to be administrator of the Little Tokyo parish, I was conducting services on Sunday in Japanese. Presently I am scheduled for noon mass each Wednesday and Friday, in English.
24 HOURS: A VIEW, VANISHED
This diptych and description were e-mailed by Denny Tillman...
I stood on my terrace and watched the plane fly past my apartment.
I watched it continue to fly all the way downtown – – – and crash into the World Trade Center.
I was alone and could not believe my eyes. I thought, All those poor people. Who should I call?
Then I realized everyone would know already – and ran inside for my camera.
My first picture was about fifteen seconds after impact. I took pictures all day.
Then, as I was on the phone describing the first crash to my partner, Nancy, at her office in Westchester, I watched the second plane turn past the Statue of Liberty and fly into the south tower. I sounded like that man on the radio describing the Hindenburg disaster.
Strangely, the night before, just after a wicked thunderstorm, I had taken a picture of [the] downtown [skyline]. It was prescient that I took that picture; I had never photographed that particular view in my 28 years living here. The clouds obscuring the Trade Center that night [had] made a deep, eerie impression.
On the evening of September 11th, I returned to the exact same place as the night before, remembering how by watching the clouds swirl around the towers the night before I was given a gift.
The world would be a different place now.
PHOTOS BY DENNY TILLMAN (SEPTEMBER 10 & 11, 2001)
In Denny's e-mail he wrote that he sent these images in memory of his artist neighbor and friend, Michael Richards, who perished there that day.
I write about Richards and his last night on earth, as remembered by his friend and colleague, the filmmaker Monika Bravo, on page 145 of Watching the World Change.
November 21, 2006
A READER IN THE REAR-VIEW MIRROR
Adam, a Maine native now living in Minnesota, is using his blog, The Garden, in part, to write about his experiences reading Watching the World Change. In the past, any real-time reader feedback I've received has come from friends, family members, colleagues, or those I meet on the lecture/book-signing circuit, people who happen to be immersed in the book at that moment. Now, an on-line stranger is expressing what it's like for him to grapple with the text. I look forward to his response and criticism, and I welcome this new sort of forum. Many thanks...
And here I am, oddly enough, writing about his writing about reading the book.
November 20, 2006
THE VISUAL REQUIRES THE VERBAL
Apropos of the entry below, the most recent issue of The Common Review (the publication of The Great Books Foundation), contains a review of Watching the World Change , which states:
"[The author] has begun the valuable process of explaining how the visual record will play out in history, and how those images require language, require story, in order to make sense at all. Finally, Friend is also quite perceptive about the political consequences, and the political manipulation of photographs for the sake of policy."
BEYOND SURFACES & SCREENS
During a lecture at Smith College last week, I was asked by a professor to offer my opinion about the diminished role of the written word in the age of the image. Implied in her query was something of a rebuke: As I explained the significance of the wealth of photographic evidence collected on September 11 (and how pictures would provide an indelible, historical baseline for generations to come), wasn't I giving short shrift to the depth and nuance of first-hand testimonies and reported accounts, to the abundance of insightful, considered analyses of the events and their aftermath that might help us get beyond the polarization and the bromides?
Why, in fact, was I placing more value on the visual than the verbal?
Clearly, I was over-emphasizing the importance of the photo. I have long believed that for certain events, in times of conflict, the photographic frame can be the most efficient and effective medium for distilling the essence of a historic moment, reducing its power to an irreducable two-dimensional space. And yet, in this age of 24/7 news, when TV anchors and pundits and government spokesmen have ample platforms available for spinning their takes on the message behind these pictures, it is the commentary--the context--that can matter as much as the image. Photos need captions. Moments need explanation. Otherwise, pictures become like music: we can color them with our subjective interpretations and associations, negating the salient facts that might be lurking in the very corners of the photographic frame.
The professor's point was that we should be careful not to downplay the significance of in-depth analysis and spirited debate to today's students, so many of whom are enamored of appearances, due to our modern-age fixation with Surfaces and Screens (supplied in spades by the camera, the Internet, the tabloids, the ticker-like "news crawls" scrolling at the bottom of our proliferating and ever-shrinking monitors). We must take the time to probe more deeply, to consider all sides, to question the Authorized Account. Otherwise, we are merely skimming, alighting, slumming--as the president did this weekend on his Vietnam visit (in a manner reminiscent of his 2005 "fly-over" above hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, conducted from the snug confines of Air Force One). Quoth Stephen Hadley, the administration's National Security Adviser, in yesterday's New York Times, in an article on George Bush's Speed Tour of Hanoi, largely conducted from the snug confines of his chauffeured car: "If you'd been part of the president's motorcade as we've shuttled back and forth [you would have seen that] the president has been doing a lot of waving and getting a lot of waving and smiles....I think he's gotten a real sense of the warmth of the Vietnamese people..." George Bush, as ever, Keeping It Real.
But then again... My predilections as a picture editor often hold sway over my instincts as a writer and word editor. And I find that I can passionately argue the case for the Image over the Word. In certain instances--especially in times of extreme violence, or in moments of unbridled joy--there is no substitute for the visual, the graphic, the eloquent silence of the image. For conveying the transcendence of the pure moment, a photo's dexterity is unsurpassed.
I'm reminded of A.O. Scott's comparison of visual-versus-verbal humor in the November 12 issue of The New York Times Magazine, in which he discusses James Agee's assessment of our current-day bias toward verbal humor in film. Writes Scott:
"[Agee] was arguing for the primacy of the gag over the joke, the visual over the verbal, a 'language' of gestures and camera placements over a language of double entrendres and stinging comebacks. It is striking, when you stop to think about it, how strongly the conventional wisdom, even among film critics, tends to run the other way: we are much more apt to repeat hilarious lines or savor witty repartee than to celebrate the pure, wordless, physical artistry of the boffo [moment, which reduces one to uncontrollable laughter]....Polite opinion likes it best when funny keeps company with smart. Humor that is mute -- or that deals with nothing more refined than the laws of gravity or the problems of digestion -- often seems dumb: either childish or, implicitly, lower class.
"To a democratic, humanistic sensibility like Agee's, however, those qualities are precisely what gave silent-screen comedy its universal appeal. The genius of a well-executed gag is that getting it requires neither schooling nor explanation....It overrides our sensibilities and sensitivities, our politics and our better judgment, disables our intellectual capacities and leaves us speechless."
November 15, 2006
A FALLING MAN, STILL MISSING
After reading my book, Michele C. Lucas of Port Chester, New York, sent a compelling letter about her fascination with a single photo taken on September 11, one that she remembers spotting in a newspaper or magazine shortly after the attacks.
On September 12, 2001, I opened The New York Times to a picture of a man falling from one of the towers. I had not expected such a picture as I turned the page, and so was stunned and horrified. I stared at the picture, feeling as the photographer Richard Drew was quoted as saying in your book, “He is you and me.” When I closed the paper that day I said that I never wanted to see such a picture again.
Over the next days I searched the Internet, but I did not find him. Everything I saw was at such a distance and nothing matched what I remembered. For months I continued to search, but I never found him. I asked friends, but no one remembered seeing such a man. I felt as though I had lost a relative or a good friend. I still felt a little crazy.
The man was a businessman, you could tell that by what he wore - dark suit pants, a white dress shirt. His hair was dark, his skin was white. He appeared to be young rather than old, though I’m not sure why. He was falling legs down, head up, his body leaned somewhat to his right and his head was turned to the left just enough so you could not make out his features. The most poignant aspect, at least to me, was his tie, which was swooshed up over his left shoulder. I even remember the tie to be striped, though, even if I ever saw such a photo, I don’t know how I could see that much detail.
As time went by and I could not locate My Falling Man, I convinced myself that I had seen him in a dream. After all, we were so bombarded with images on 9/11 and in the days that followed, I could have had a very vivid dream about a falling man and thought that it was real. I had just about convinced myself when I related my story to yet another friend, who told me that she remembered the man, she remembered him because of the tie, and I was back to square one. She feels that she saw him on television, but I don’t know. All the TV shots I saw of people falling were at too great a distance. I feel that the picture I remember must have been taken with the zoom lens of a still camera.
Why do I care so much? I’m not sure. I’m way past doubting my sanity which was definitely an issue at the beginning. I think I care because I have had this man in my life for so long, and he stands for all those who suffered such an atrocious death simply because they had gone to work that day. If I relegate him to a dream when he really existed, then he has been forgotten and I do him such a disservice. In some strange, possibly morbid way, I miss him.
Best regards, Michele C. Lucas
November 14, 2006
IN GOOD COMPANY
In a piece posted today, columnist Greg Mitchell writes about Watching the World Change and its connection with Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers.
Grateful for the company.
November 13, 2006
CONSPIRACY & VENOM
In the two months since the fifth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, there has been something of a lull in the mainstream press about 9/11 conspiracy theories ("The towers were rigged with dynamite"..."Mossad and the CIA did it, in cahoots with Bush, Cheney, Halliburton, the Saudis and the Big Oil interests"..."The people on United 93 actually survived, were taken off the plane and sequestered in a secret hangar"..."The Pentagon actually bombed the Pentagon.") When I talk with teenagers or 20-somethings about the subject or when I visit college campuses on my book tour, I still encounter the conspiracy faithful, who seem to find some sort of comfort or meaning or relief from despair by focusing on a convenient culprit close to home instead of a faceless, unseen enemy such as al Qaeda.
Perhaps because my book attempts to debunk some of the theories out there (which circulate widely on the Internet and on talk radio), I still find push-back, resentment, pockets of resistance. I've received e-mails from people accusing me of being a CIA agent, accusing me of perpetuating a cover-up, accusing me of pooh-pooh-ing hard evidence. Hey, it comes with the territory, I guess.
On a positive note: I've been buoyed by the positive reactions from readers who've approached me by e-mail, phone, or in person following last week's events in New York (a panel for 250 at PhotoPlus Explo; a reading at the Half King, thanks to an invitation and introducution by author Sebastian Junger), Amherst (a book-signing), and Milwaukee (a radio interview with Greg Berg of the NPR affiliate there).
Tonight, a talk at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.
November 7, 2006
FROM LONDON & LONG ISLAND...
From Jeffrey Hogan, a London-based employee of eSpeed, a division of Cantor Fitzgerald, who lost many friends in the World Trade Center attacks…
Taking on the subject [of photography and September 11] was courageous as I imagine that, while part of you felt incomplete without your story being told, in the course of your research you had the unhappy and unenviable task of reviewing footage/scenes that may have gone beyond what was publicly acceptable or were images you may have otherwise chosen not to revisit.
While it's not a work a reader would intend on enjoying, I found myself simultaneously operating in three zones during the experience: admiring your craft, objectively observing each shattered stained glass window piece you were reassembling and being fearful of what might be on the next page.
Your precise word mining interrupted the rhythm for me - often I would need to step outside and nod yes that's exactly the definitive term - and the poignancy of some phrases had a palpable physicality which made me feel unnerved and veering off balance. Without being patronising I saw you as a weaver at the loom sifting through a mountain of ideas, quotes, opinions, emotions and images carefully selecting each strand of coloured thread. I felt your piece resonated in embracing and factually gathering, collating and sequencing the rush of simultaneous events so as to make sense of the vortex and construct an order to the super-collisions of that day and week.
On a technical level I saw you meticulously outlining your industry to the layman, placing in historical context the raw nuts and bolts grinding to churn out the global delivery of the nutgraph. My own reference point would be the complexity in deciphering arcane inner workings of multi-layered financial derivatives rotating across time zones, and I was struck by the clarity and urgency with which you set your table.
Aside from the positive, healing impact WTWC had on my own grieving process (by taking extra moments to revisit and honour lost friends), emotionally I felt your work was carefully non-sensationalised, and that your own trauma and bias were held at bay. I must confess that my own sense of cynicism about core human behaviour is deeper than your balanced reporting of the spectrum of reactions would seem to warrant. I thought it was brave for some photographers to admit they were seeking by-lines and plaudits rather than capturing history, and as you confirmed many contributors to the photo pool were more intent on commemorating themselves, externally projecting themselves into becoming a combatant or joining the I-Was There-Club rather than being noble. I found some of the city shrines gut-wrenching, but many were also symbols of misguided patriotism or the impotence of being unable to prevent that (or future) disaster(s). I think the portraits were not sacred objects of the divine but rather less subtle articles - acts of desperation from stunned souls. Also, I do think some of the pundits' analysis was overly complex - an attempt to reverse engineer layers of Zen meaning into what was a primal and bitter act.
My own thoughts of the value of the images, and I suppose the premise of your book, have evolved since we last spoke. One element of the 911 experience is that anyone and everyone's personal reactions are justified and have nothing whatsoever to do with proximity to Ground Zero or to having suffered a direct loss (or not). Certainly someone in Montana can be more permanently scarred than another living on Duane Street. This took me a while to get used to, that the concentric circles emanating from the geography of the event do not diminish in impact and in fact can grow exponentially larger the farther away one is from the dagger strike - just because I was affected directly doesn't validate my feelings over yours. While the images themselves are central to transmitting the experience to the masses, I have come to think that there is a danger of, rather than preserving or crystalsing an emotion, the image can displace true feelings and disconnect one from the experience - I have the totem, I don't have to search for and retrieve my own opinion – the 'big story' replaces my own.
Another factor in the image receding in importance is that while the frozen reproduction remains fixed, the interpretation of its cause and meaning will migrate as have other passages in history which change in shape and tone over time. The perception of this event will remain a moving target, defined more by the ongoing response and ensuing countermeasures than by itself. Therefore the images that matter are those that we carry inside ourselves of either loved ones or a simpler age. Not only is the camera becoming symbolic of the intrusion inherent in the recent loss of personal freedom, ultimately I think the image is superfluous in engendering the tolerance and forgiveness necessary to halt an escalation of the battle. Rather, it's possible to say that the fixation on those images is precisely what is ensuring a reoccurrence.
From Bruce Kanin, of Merrick, Long Island:
I worked for Citigroup Asset Management on the 36th floor of 7 World Trade Center. On the morning of September 11th, at about 15 minutes before 9am, [our] office window was sucked in and out as we heard a great noise outside. We rushed to the window ... and soon saw that one or more floors were on fire, with a kind of fireball coming out of them.
November 5, 2006
This, from Murray Barbash, of Brightwaters, New York...
"Just finished the book. Must confess that before I started it, I doubted that it could sustain my interest, what with all the material I have seen and read the last five years. But, in a word, the book is wonderful.
"On a personal note, I was particularly struck by the paragraph on page 223 which starts: 'For many of us, photos are the glue we use to hold in place the disjointed bits of fiction and fact that make up the stories of our lives.' I was in the living room when I read it, and jumped up to look at the family photographs on the piano. There was the high school graduation picture of [my wife] Lillian, which so captivated me that I carried a miniature of it around for three years of army service in WWII. I know what you are talking about."
...And this, from the Web site Fotolog.com, a cryptic, fascinating photograph taken on September 11 (and a nice blurb for the book)...
I have contacted the higher-ups at Fotolog and, alas, no one can identify the person who shot and posted this image. Is there anyone out there who can identify the photographer so that I can credit him/her properly? I would love to know the circumstances surrounding this image. Many thanks...
GLITCHES OF EASTWOOD
For two weeks now, people have asked me for my opinion of Clint Eastwood's new film, Flags of Our Fathers, given its thematic parallels with the last chapter of my book. Eastwood's film, based on the superb book of the same name, by James Bradley and Ron Powers, examines how the wartime exploitation of a picture (photojournalist Joe Rosenthal's iconic shot of six men raising the American flag at Iwo Jima in 1945) upended the lives of the subjects within the photographic frame. In much the same way, Watching the World Change reveals for the first time how the wartime exploitation of a picture (photojournalist Thomas Franklin's iconic shot of three men raising the American flag at Ground Zero on 9/11) upended the lives of the subjects within the photographic frame.
Last night, I finally saw the movie and admit to being underwhelmed and disappointed. Yes, the film has perfect-pitch battle scenes, rendered in a nightmarish, slate-gray cast; the washed-out color and claustrophobic camerawork compress each moment of combat and carnage into its own private funnel of hallucination. The film has truly epic and breath-taking panoramas in which massive naval fleets are arrayed across the big screen as never before in cinematic history. And, best of all, the film has an inspired and inspirational sequence showing America's jubilation on that morning in 1945 when a single photograph at a key juncture in the final months of the Pacific campaign--carried from the battlefield to the darkroom to newsrooms and front pages around the world--aroused and rallied a nation long fatigued by the horrors and deprivations of the war.
But in the end what makes Bradley and Powers' book so effective is precisely what dooms the movie. It buckles under the weight of too much minutae, too many flashbacks (caution: this film induces flashback whiplash), and too many indistinguishable characters. Had Eastwood fully fleshed out the lives of the three surviving flag-raisers he might have given the film the critical mass it required to sustain a compelling narrative. Instead, we are introduced to protagonists who lack dimension. Eastwood may win many battles (best special effects, best art direction, best sound mixing) but he loses the war--and the audience. (That said, two out of three ain't bad. His last two directing efforts--Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby--were cinematic triumphs of the first order.)
One niggling point, for me: no distinction is made between Rosenthal's photo and the crude illustration that soon supplanted it, which is displayed on screen throughout the second half of the film. In fact, Rosenthal's image, as the centerpiece of the 1945 bond drive (which raised unprecedented billions for the war effort), was re-cast as a painting and plastered on posters across the land. Soon, it was the illustration, not the photo, that became embedded in the nation's subconscious. So be it. That's how the life of the image played out across the culture 60 years ago. But that still doesn't excuse the screenwriters, who have President Truman say, upon greeting the flag-raisers in the Oval Office, "Let's look at the picture"--and then usher them toward the illustration, not the photograph. (I guess this embrace of the artifice--this substitution of the graphic for the photographic--is partly the point. But that point is made so subtly it seems inadvertent and unintended by the filmmakers.)
One review worth sharing is by Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Hume Kennerly, who says in this month's Popular Photographer and American Photo that he feels Rosenthal was given short shrift in the movie. Writes Kennerly, in part:
"Joe's camera-toting character comes across as some kind of accidental tourist who has just blundered off of an amphibious landing craft into one of the biggest battles of all time. In fact Rosenthal, a veteran of five Pacific campaigns, was among the first to hit the beach with the Marines when they went ashore a few days earlier. In [Bradley and Powers's] book...Rosenthal is quoted as saying that enemy fire during the initial landing was so intense that, 'not getting hit was like running through rain and not getting wet.' Joe not only made the initial landing, but had to fight his way out to the command ship at the end of each day to deliver his film for shipment to Guam where it was processed."