Where were you 20 years ago?
There are key moments in history that bind us together. You recognize it in the questions people ask like:
Where were you when Kennedy was assassinated?
Where were you when the space shuttle blew up?
Where were you when 9/11 happened.
On the morning of 9/11 I awakened to a phone call telling me to turn on the television. Terrorist events that had always seemed so distant were now uncomfortably close.
I had just returned to Spokane from my first trip to the east coast and it had given me a sense for how interconnected the United States really is. From that trip I had met new friends who lived in Manhattan and I had a friend stationed near the Pentagon. As I viewed the video footage of the towers coming down and a person jumping to their death I felt helpless and powerless.
After I could not watch any longer I took a walk along the Spokane river. I watched ducks and mergansers float by and ospreys and eagles circle overhead while the water flowing over rocks created white noise that gave me time to think.
As I tried to process what was happening I thought about how fragile I felt and how we are like eggs all in the same basket. I walked up to my office on campus and drafted an idea for a photographic image to illustrate this metaphor I was thinking about.
The scale of the project meant I couldn’t just snap a photo. I would have to carefully plan it out. As the weeks went by I found myself not wanting to work on the image as I was tiring of the heavy clouds that permeated every facet of our media culture. The world we knew had vanished overnight.
A Political Divide
9/11 brought us the Patriot act, department of Homeland Security, drone strikes, and a 20 year war. We suddenly knew we were being monitored and that travel would never feel safe or convenient again. Gun sales spiked by 21% and security lines would become a permanent fixture in our lives wherever we went. 24/7 news cycles and political shouting matches would widen the chasm between democrats and republicans seemingly beyond our ability to build bridges for the common good.
Creating the image
After the 2004 presidential election I was inspired to revisit my notebook where I had my notes about the 9/11 image. I would need to rent scaffolding and find a couple of assistants to help me. We spent two days dying eggs and using silly puddy to hold them in the shape of the United States. I found an elementary school overhead projector with a map of the US to project on to the floor to guide the egg placement and I directed everything from 10 feet above on scaffolding.
After all the eggs were carefully lined up and I had made the first photograph of just eggs. Next we placed four cracked eggs where each of the four crash sites had been.
That concluded the original idea but it didn’t feel like enough. I decided I needed to recreate the destruction I had seen on the news channels. My assistants and I went outside looking for building materials we could bring into the studio to drop on top of the eggs.
We found concrete paver stones, wood, and metal that I would use to create the rest of images in the series. Knowing that we were going to be destroying the eggs and making a huge mess, I decided that I needed to create a final image of hope which was illustrated by the placement of flowers in each of the four crash sites. As I did this I was thinking of the image of a woman placing a flower in the barrel of a soldiers gun during the Vietnam era. I wanted to feel peace instead of anger.
I had to photograph the final image before I destroyed the eggs with the building materials. After the initial destruction image was made we decided to spray some water on the mess and see how that impacted the image. This became the most important image to me in what had become a full blown series. What had started as an idea for one image turned into 5 images that would grow to 7 in the final exhibition.
The three of us in the studio were moved to silence after we saw the mess. I exposed the last sheet of film in a somber and solemn mood. For me this image was cathartic for so many reasons that went beyond representing the historical event. It spoke deeply of the universal human emotions of anger and grief, fear and optimism, and our need for community.
A short exhibition
After the studio was cleaned up I spent the next month editing and thinking about what to do with this series. I didn’t have a gallery show planned at the time but I felt the urge to make large prints anyway. I scanned the 4×5 negatives and edited them in Photoshop to clean up the white paper surface and to deepen the color saturation.
As I prepared the image files for printing I typically will invert the image to see it as a negative. I find that I can judge the luminosity of an image better by looking at the negative rather than the positive. This goes back to my days of working in the darkroom and evaluating which negative to print based upon the proper exposure and development. I felt a gut punch when I inverted the images of destruction. The eggs now looked like coals in a fire. I knew I had to add these to the collection even if it meant spending a lot more money to produce the canvases.
After the test prints were made I set about finding a gallery that would let me show the mural sized canvases. A new gallery had opened up in the Fox Theater building and the gallery director offered me an opportunity to show my work on the five year anniversary of 9/11.
I would have to repaint all the walls and hang the show by myself but I didn’t care. I sent my files off to my photo lab for printing in Portland Oregon and prepared the labels and signage.
The healing power of art
It was late when I finally finished hanging the exhibition. As I sat alone in the gallery I broke down and cried. I didn’t really realize why I had been driven to make these images until that moment. The images were a representation of my own grief process and while I had been inspired by 9/11 to think of the original concept for these images, it wasn’t until 5 years later when I was going through a personal crisis that I needed to make these images to process it.
Later on I would learn that Freud described creativity as the most powerful survival skill humans possess. Making art is a sense making process known as sublimation that helps us transform challenges into meaningful life experiences that we grow from.
It is my hope that these images can be a reminder of our ongoing need to be creative and supportive in the face of adversity.
I would like to thank my assistants Tamara Alvarez and Chrystal Wakeham
for their tremendous help in the making of these images.