The Boston Globe

He illuminates the horror -- and hope -- at ground zero

By Cate McQuaid, Globe Correspondent  |  August 13, 2004

PROVINCETOWN -- Most people know photographer Joel Meyerowitz for his book "Cape Light." In it, he distilled the double dose of the sun and reflected ocean light into pictures of languid, forever-long summer days. ("Cape Light" is now out in a 25th anniversary edition.) Yet Meyerowitz, who summers in Provincetown, is a New Yorker who considers himself a street photographer. On Sept. 11, 2001, when his wife in New York called him on the Cape to tell him that planes were flying into the World Trade Center, he took his camera and went home.

Initially turned away from ground zero, Meyerowitz wheedled his way into the good graces of the arson and explosion squad of the New York Police Department and became the only photographer regularly allowed inside the massive cleanup project. By the end of May 2002, he had shot 8,500 images with his large-format Deardorff view camera. More than 30 of them comprise the powerful exhibition "Inside the Forbidden City," on view at the Provincetown Art Association and Museum.

The subject is the antithesis a lazy August afternoon, but Meyerowitz took the same eye to ground zero that he brought to Cape Cod. He captures the quality of light of an autumn day or evening, then lets that light inform, broaden, and comment on what it falls upon. Swaths and patches of color -- often red -- anchor the images. The view camera opens a great field of vision without focusing the viewer's gaze; the eye can wander over details or open to the larger, more complex picture.

That's exactly what we need to do to revisit an event of this magnitude, and Meyerowitz does this in individual images and in the exhibition as a whole. The keystone to the show is the largest image, "The Twin Towers," shot on Sept. 25. Mounted simply on Plexiglas suspended from the wall, the picture hangs in the air like a ghost, only far more real. It's a panoramic scene of ground zero, theatrically lit at night, mauve smoke still rising from the rubble.

The skeletal stumps of the two towers are flayed open, looking like sacramental chalices. Also like a sacrament, red threads can be seen through the gray of the disaster: the red cranes, the red rust of buckled metal, the red-lined curtains sheathing nearby buildings.

Another shot homes in on the smallest detail: soot-covered toy cars on the floor of an abandoned day-care center. The one in the middle is an ambulance, with a red cross on its door.

Meyerowitz doesn't shy away from the disaster and anguish. Yet redemption is never far from his sight: the way the sunlight shines through the smoke, or the blue of evening settles like a balm over the wreckage. He and the men and women whom he photographed cleaning up and sorting through the rubble brought respect and compassion to the scarred site. Maybe that's where redemption is to be found -- at the intersection of horror and love.

Of course, Meyerowitz did more than find it: He applied his eye and his talent. His photographs give us somewhere to dwell with our memories, and to heal a little more.

Trips in time and space DNA Gallery hosts a trio of old favorites: Tabitha Vevers, Daniel Ranalli, and Jim Peters. Peters continues his fevered, loving, desirous portrayal of women in painting and sculpture. Tender yet aggressive, these women open and close to the viewer (and the artist). The sculptures, on painted platforms jutting from the wall, explore space. The paintings, with ghost strokes rising to the surface, catch moments in time.

Ranalli's color photographs in the "Zen Dune Garden Series," which he has been working on for some time, document his earthworks: He takes a rake into the dunes and traces swirling, circling lines through the sand. Here today, gone tomorrow (except for the photograph), Ranalli's zen gardens are lovely, and are lessons in the constancy of change.

Vevers returns to an old practice of hers, painting in oil and gold leaf on clam and scallop shells. Always fascinated with the mythic, particularly with regard to the feminine, Vevers here plays on her medium with salty visual puns. "Birth of Venus" recalls Botticelli's painting, only here the shell is real, and Venus is on hands and knees, actually giving birth. It's as if the ocean is the collective unconscious, tossing up stories of creation on the sand as easily as it does clamshells.

Beauty of the mundane Two color photographers of a different ilk have work down the road in Provincetown, at the Schoolhouse Galleries. Morgan Cohen, a Bostonian, continues to take minimalist shots of the corners where walls and ceiling meet, or of mere stretches of wall.

His images have gotten more complicated, with water stains and shadows tracing over his cramped spaces along with flickering light, so that they don't feel cramped but graced.

Indeed, Cohen transforms the most mundane and ugly little niches into sites of beauty. "Montebello" shows a wall with colorless dabs of paint on it; light skitters through a lacy curtain and casts across the wall like an illuminated moth about to fly off. In "Pond St. Ceiling" the water stains on wall and ceiling look like spare watercolor abstractions.

Phil Smith also dwells on the things we take for granted. His small urban fragments ground us in the reality of a neighborhood: the chipping paint on a barber's pole, or a stack of papayas, each swaddled like an infant in white paper, each sporting a bright sticker. Color pings through Smith's world, guiding him and us, from the red and green of flowers trapped behind a scarred and pitted plastic window to the pink of a wall where two open padlocks hang. 
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company

This story ran in the Boston Globe on August 13th, 2004.

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