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Museum Of The City of New York Commemorates 9/11 With Pictorial Elegies To Fallen Towers
August 29, 2011  | 

Exhibition of Photographs by Camilo José Vergara and Paintings by Romain de Plas Opens September 2, 2011

A powerful photographic portrait of the World Trade Center by social documentarian Camilo José Vergara—who is renowned for his visionary studies of urban environments—will be on view at the Museum of the City of New York from September 2 through December 4, 2011, as will a series of paintings by a French-American artist who sought to make a meditative homage to the iconic buildings.  The Twin Towers and the City: Photographs by Camilo José Vergara and Paintings by Romain de Plas will feature 65 color photographs, dating from 1970 through the present, and eight paintings, which reveal the visual power of the Twin Towers and elucidate their indelible imprint on the city.

Commented Susan Henshaw Jones, the Ronay Menschel Director of the Museum:  “Camilo José Vergara’s photographs interpret the stunning power of New York’s built environment while spotlighting the loss of these once phenomenal structures. The emotionally charged paintings of Romain de Plas complement the photographs with their energy and raw power. We can think of no more meaningful way to memorialize the horrific events of September 11, 2001 than these keenly felt studies.”

Camilo José Vergara, a renowned social documentarian and MacArthur Award winner (its nickname is the “Genius Award”) began photographing the World Trade Center in 1970 when it was still under construction, with the intent of recording it from every possible point of view, near and far, high and low, at different times of day throughout each year.  The orbit of his self-imposed project took him 360 degrees around lower Manhattan over the course of 40 years.  He also returned to various spots from which he had once depicted the buildings, capturing not only the nuances of light and atmospheric conditions, but dramatic changes in the landscapes visible in the foregrounds and backgrounds of the photographs. 

Arranged thematically, the exhibition will feature groupings that elucidate the role of the Twin Towers in the built environment and in the life of New York City over forty years, including
• Images that serve as time-lapse sequences, portraying the transformations in neighborhoods, communities, and large portions of the metropolis
• A section called “Tiny Towers,” which demonstrates the iconic nature of these landmarks when viewed at great distances
• Tributes to the Twin Towers in the aftermath of 9/11, in which Vergara documented the many outdoor murals and depictions (nationwide) of the buildings that sprang up in memoriam;  ranging from the highly sophisticated to the vernacular, whether made by professional artists, folk artists, or street painters, these haunting expressions of loss are ghostly reincarnations of the Towers themselves.    

Taken as a whole, the images on view provide an immersive experience in the history of the city’s built environment. Each photograph is made even more extraordinary by the presence of the preternaturally high towers; whether standing alongside behemoths of the city’s financial district or looming surreally over residential neighborhoods, the Towers command attention.  Even when miniaturized by distance, as they are in many of the images, the Towers are visible and apparent, like distant stars. Vergara’s extensive body of work revivifies these iconic buildings in a compelling, cinematic portrait of the life of a city.
Vergara, who was born in Santiago, Chile, came to the US in 1965 to attend college at the University of Notre Dame and went on to obtain a masters degree in sociology from Columbia University.  His primary subjects throughout his career have been America’s changing inner city neighborhoods.

French-American artist Romain de Plas (1971-2002) was born January 4, 1971, in Paris, France, and moved to New York City when still a child.  He attended Brown University and went on to earn a degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1998. 

De Plas worked and (for a time) lived in a studio on Rivington Street in downtown Manhattan, which provided a view of the World Trade Center.  Following the attacks, he worked in the early morning hours, trying to visually express the magnitude of the event and beginning what would become a series of 11 paintings.  De Plas died suddenly on September 13, 2002, before he could bring his project to completion.  The series of eight expressionist works on view serve as a meditation on the event and a tribute to the World Trade Center and those who died, some of whom were de Plas’s friends. The expressive and highly-charged works portray the Towers in a range of modes from calm to agitated, suggesting rather than graphically depicting the chaos of the attacks. Although his work has been shown in Paris, Antwerp, and New York, the World Trade Center series has never before been exhibited. 

The World Trade Center:  Background Facts
The Twin Towers, each standing 110-stories high, were New York’s tallest buildings.  Their presence served as navigational tools for millions of people traveling in and around New York City for more than a quarter century.  Unwavering and constant, they were among the most significant landmarks ever built.

The World Trade Center complex of seven buildings occupied 16 acres near the Hudson River at the southern tip of Manhattan island, bounded by Vesey, Church, Liberty, and West Streets.  Planning for the “world trade and financial center” began in the 1950s, when David Rockefeller and other business leaders sought to revitalize lower Manhattan.  The Port Authority joined the effort in 1961, largely to modernize the commuter rail system and establish a regional center.  The architects of the World Trade Center were Minoru Yamasaki and Emery Roth & Sons;  Leslie Robertson of Skilling, Helle, Christiansen, Robertson served as engineer.  Construction began in 1962; the last building was completed in 1988.  The total cost of the project amounted to more than $1 billion.  The land that was removed during construction eventually created 23.5 acres for the area now known as Battery Park City.
Comprising ten million square feet of usable space, the World Trade Center displaced the Pentagon as the world’s largest office complex and the Empire State Building as its tallest edifice.  The World Trade Center had its own zip code:  10048.  

The largest structures within the complex of seven buildings were two soaring skyscrapers, or “twin towers,” which dramatically transformed the city skyline and became international icons to which a wide variety of symbolic meanings were attributed. Often criticized as architecturally unimaginative, the Twin Towers could seem sculptural or weightless, or monolithic and imposing; they often glistened, radiating and reflecting light within a variety of metropolitan weather conditions.  They were a defining presence in the city’s skyline and a defining symbol of New York City itself.

A terrorist car bomb exploded in one of the parking lots below the World Trade Center on February 26, 1993.  Six people were killed.

The attack on September 11, 2001, caused the near-instant destruction of the World Trade Center, killing an estimated 2,753 people, including 343 firefighters and 70 police officers, in addition to the passengers and crews onboard two airplanes which had been hijacked by Al- Qaeda terrorists and used to fly directly into the Twin Towers.  Miraculously, 21 people were found alive in the rubble, which took almost one year to remove.

Exhibition Credits
Dr. Sarah Henry, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at the Museum of the City of New York, and Sean Corcoran, Curator of Prints and Photographs at the Museum, are the curators of the exhibition.

The Museum of the City of New York celebrates and interprets the city, educating the public about its distinctive character, especially its heritage of diversity, opportunity, and perpetual transformation.  Founded in 1923 as a private, non-profit corporation, the Museum connects the past, present, and future of New York City.  It serves the people of New York and visitors from around the world through exhibitions, school and public programs, publications, and collections. Among the strengths of the Museum’s collections are prints and photographs, and the Museum houses an extraordinary resource for photographs of New York City.  The Museum’s past exhibitions of photographs, which have garnered attention from the press and public alike are The Mythic City: Photographs of New York by Samuel H. Gottscho, 1925-1940, Only in New York, and Willing To Be Lucky: Ambitious New Yorkers in the Pages of LOOK Magazine, among many others.