Photo (“Dust-Covered snow globe”) by Eugene Richards
JR: You have chosen a photo by the photojournalist Eugene Richards. This photo was taken in New York City in 2001 and is titled: “Dust-covered snow globe.” It is featured in his book Stepping Through the Ashes. What do you especially notice in this image? And why does it draw your attention?
KM: When I saw the photo for the first time, my eyes were immediately drawn to the hand reaching down for the snow globe. I was curious, but not initially struck by the image in any meaningful way. Then I realized what was inside the snow globe — the Twin Towers. I felt like I was looking at a completely different photo. I remember leaning closer to the screen of my computer and feeling my chest tighten. I glanced at the caption below the photo, and sure enough, it read: “New York, NY. 2001.”
The details of the piece began to come together for me. The four miniature Empire State Buildings surrounding the snow globe formed something of a cityscape, along with the assortment of the other fragiles on display. It appeared that the hand was removing the snow globe from the tiny city, literally taking away the Twin Towers with a certain degree of suddenness and ease. The delicateness of everything sitting in the window struck me; it would take nothing to shatter the snow globe or the ceramic. It reminded me of how easily broken the things in our world are. Even the World Trade Center, which towered above the New York City skyline, collapsed in rubble in a matter of hours. I think that many of us feel a degree of invincibility; we hear about terrible things in the news and quickly dismiss it as something that could never happen to us. The glass dome surrounding the miniature Twin Towers is representative of just that — it’s an illusion of protection that makes us feel safe. But, just as the snow globe was removed from the cityscape, the Twin Towers fell to the ground. The heartbreaking simplicity of the photo sticks with me; it is one I will never forget.
JR: That hand! Indeed! I think that the absence of a corresponding face (it is no one’s hand) and (as you note) the apparent deliberateness of the motion towards the globe only add to the drama you perceive in this image. It’s haunting and disconcerting. Tell me about how this is also beautiful?
KM: I think it is important to acknowledge the aesthetic merit of how artfully crafted the photo is; for example, the way in which Richards lowers the shutter speed of his camera in order to capture the blur of the motion of the hand, and how (as you noted) the photo is shot from an angle such that the hand and arm seem disembodied from an identifiable person. The choice to shoot the photo in black and white film gives rise to a sense of warped, haunting nostalgia, almost like a memory frozen in time.
While, in their own way, each of these aspects of the photo have beauty, the photo is made truly beautiful because it recreates and expresses an event — in a powerful and simple way — that holds so much meaning for so many people. Everyone I have talked to who was old enough to remember 9/11 could tell me exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that the Towers were struck. It was a catalyst that changed the United States (and the world) and the lives of countless individuals. Looking at this photo gives me a feeling similar to that which I experienced when I visited the Ground Zero Museum in New York City — a sort of horrified awe and grief for what was lost.
Richards’ photo, with the hand hovering slightly above the globe, gives the audience the perspective of an onlooker, almost as though they are watching Flight 11 just before it crashes into the North Tower, powerless to do anything to stop it. The sheer magnitude of the consequences of the event — the lives lost and families destroyed, the following war, and influx of hate crimes against anyone who so much as “appeared” Muslim — gives the photo extreme potential for impact, especially as it is composed so masterfully. For me, the photo’s beauty is how it reconstructs the moment right before everything changed.
JR: Commonly, “beauty” connotes something pleasing, positive, or even pretty. But none of these seems an especially or obviously apt description of this photograph and all that it so powerfully communicates. Tell me how it is that you think “beauty” also applies to this photo that, while artfully crafted and powerful, is also devastatingly symbolic in calling to mind such immeasurable tragedy, suffering and turmoil?
KM: I agree that “beauty”, as it is commonly understood, connotes all the characteristics you mentioned, and I also would add that it also implies something that gives rise to feelings of happiness. Richards’ piece, which in its own subtle way speaks to the pain and suffering caused by the 9/11 attacks, certainly does not fit that definition of beauty. That definition, however, when applied to the scope of emotions people experience is response to art and real life events, seems rather narrow. Beautiful art, if restricted to inducing only feelings of happiness and pleasure in viewers, would hardly capture the diverse range of emotions that people feel. It would turn a blind eye to everything that is broken in the world and the hurt that people experience, as well as the natural tragedies of humanity, such as death and disease. These are not things that can be ignored simply because it is easier and less painless to do so. In fact, I don’t think that it is possible to truly appreciate happiness without having experienced sadness.
Richards’ photo reminds viewers of all that was lost in 9/11, and allows people to remember and fully experience those feelings of grief for the people who died, for the history that was destroyed, and the injustice of the attacks. The value and beauty of the individuals killed is brought back to the forefront of one’s mind. Appreciation for the lives they lived is reinforced, as well as mourning for the experiences they didn’t get to have. In a certain way I believe that this photo is positive, not in a way that brings happiness, but because of the effect that it has. As time has passed, the intensity of emotions regarding the attacks may have faded, but Richards’ piece serves as a reminder of the impact 9/11 had, and how more must be done to combat suffering in the world and honor the lives lost in all acts of violence.
JR: How important is it for you to have beauty present in your life? In what ways is it important or, what, if anything, does it contribute to your life?
KM: Beauty, I think, is one of the things that is most important in my life. It adds meaning, awe, and wonder to the world, and powerfully affects anyone who perceives it. Without it, my world would be colorless. I don’t believe beauty always has to give rise to feelings of happiness — it can also be tragic, or bittersweet, or haunting. Beauty bestows value that deepens my life and helps me better understand the people, things, and world around me. If beauty were restricted to only things that bring joy or pleasure, I would be missing out on all the other experiences that life offers. I have a newfound appreciation for the world and appreciation for the fact that I get to partake in it, even when I experience it as heartbreaking or horrifying. Beauty and beautiful things are confirmation and proof that Earth (and the universe) is incredible in how it exists and how things are created. When I am in the face of beauty, I become more aware of my own life and am driven not to take it for granted and live it to its fullest.