Natural Selection Nature Photography
By Mark J. Thomas
Tribute in Light
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When I first heard on the news what they were planning in New York to honor the memory of the World Trade Center and those who were injured or perished in the September 11, 2001 disaster, I knew that I must be there to photograph this event. And although most of the subjects that I  photograph usually have fur, feathers or fins and represent the natural world around us ... I felt that this scene was not all that much of a stretch as it was a strong representation to me of "human nature." The "Tribute in Light" was part of the healing process, giving us one last glimpse of "the towers" while we slowly bring normalcy back into our lives.

The event began on March 11, the six-month anniversary of the World Trade Center attacks. The lights were lit at dusk each night and remained on until 11 PM. Originally called "Towers of Light," the title was changed to "Tribute in Light" to be more inclusive, to honor the dead as well as the World Trade Center. Tribute in Light was a temporary artistic gesture bringing together the vision and talent of numerous individuals who, shortly after the attacks, independently envisioned two beams of light rising from downtown New York. 

"Tribute" was powered free-of-charge by Con Edison. It used 88 special $1,000 light bulbs, donated by General Electric, which emit 7,000 watts of electricity each. That's over 600,000 watts creating a mile-high shaft visible within a radius of 20 miles. At the base of the memorial, two platforms were set up like launch pads, separated at a diagonal by roughly half a block, across West Street from where the real towers once stood. Each square was comprised of 44 cannons projecting 44 independent columns of blue-white light.

Regardless of whether the New York Skyline comfortably "fit the usual theme" of my prior work, I knew that I must see and capture this fleeting event on film. So I immediately began formulating a plan. Having never been to New York City before ... I was really starting from scratch. In a casual e-mail to a friend of mine in Atlanta I mentioned my plans to go to New York to photograph "the lights." A day or two later she e-mailed me back and forwarded a picture of the lights that had been e-mailed to her. This picture had actually been an "artist's rendition" of what the event might look like and showed the statue of liberty standing  in front of two towering beams of light. From the second I saw that image .. I knew I would soon be on my way to NYC.

I contacted some relatives who were familiar with Manhattan and sent them the "e-mail picture" that had been sent to me. They immediately knew that the skyline in this picture must have been taken from somewhere in New Jersey. While I was away at an art show ... they got hold of a map of lower Manhattan and tried to pinpoint the location where the "e-mail picture" might have originated the best they could. So now I had my starting point.

With my flights confirmed and my rental car waiting ... I flew up to New Jersey on March 27, 2002. After settling in and preparing my photo gear ... I set out in search of "THE SPOT" from which I would get the best angle and do justice to the event. When I got to the place marked on my map ... I was immediately disappointed. It did not give me the angle that I was looking for. The Statue of Liberty was too far off to the right and nowhere near the light beams. In order to get the Statue near the lights ... I knew I had to travel south. I looked at the map and tried to find a spot that would give me the angle I wanted. But the map didn't show any roads where I wanted to go. So I headed south on several back roads until finally I arrived on a spit of land jutting out into the river. This was in a harbor area where the big container ships come in and unload their goods from Europe. I followed this road for miles while never getting a clear look at the skyline through all the loading cranes and train cars. When the road finally ended ... I still didn't have the angle or view of the city that I wanted. But I could now see where I wanted to be. So hiking the rest of the way on foot ... I found a clear spot through some trees and bushes where I could shoot the exact scene that was in my mind.

I set up my equipment ... and began shooting. It was very cold and breezy and keeping the camera steady during the long exposures was critical ... and difficult. Another unforeseen problem was airplanes. Manhattan is right in the glide paths of  LaGuardia, JFK, and Newark International Airports. There were planes taking off and landing almost constantly. And with exposure times of up to 1 minute ... it was extremely difficult to shoot the skyline without having the flashing red and white lights from the airplanes streaking across the scene. It wasn't dark enough to really see the lights well until about 8 PM, and I knew the lights were going to be turned off at 11 PM ... which didn't leave much time ... especially while trying to shoot in between the air traffic. And then the next obstacle appeared ...

At about 9PM ... after shooting for less than an hour ... the police rolled up and asked me what I was doing. Apparently, I had slipped through a gate when I drove in that is normally locked after dark. I told them what I was photographing and ask them if I could have another 20 to 30 minutes to shoot. They said "make it 15" and they allowed me to stay. The police were very understanding ... they even let me stretch my 15 minutes into 45. I didn't want to wear out my welcome so I left well before the lights were turned out. I only managed to shoot about 1 roll of film that first night. But at least now I had things scoped out for the next night.

I spent three nights shooting the scene ... trying to stay in the good graces of the New Jersey Police and using my "best guess" as to what the proper exposure might be. (It happened to be right at the time of the full moon ... which was rising right at dusk. I took advantage of this fact the second night as I photographed the full moon rising behind the Statue of Liberty from another location). I also was shooting with both 35mm and 6 X 7 camera formats to capture the scene on both sizes of film.

I returned home on March 30th and quickly sent half the film to the lab to have processed. I felt that the results were pretty good ... and now I was able to determine what the proper exposure would be. So after my next art show I decided to return to New York for the final 4 days of the event. There would be no moon this time which would be better to help keep the sky darker and let the lights shine more brightly. So on April 10th I flew back up and spent 4 more nights photographing the lights. But now it was daylight savings time and it didn't get dark until after 9 PM .. which left even less time to photograph. The police were even more accommodating when I returned and they allowed me to shoot until the lights were turned off each night at 11PM. But they did draw the line at 11:15 PM on April 13th even though the lights would remain on until dawn the next morning. 

Upon leaving on the 14th, I felt certain that I had captured the event and would be able to do it justice. This panoramic shot encompasses the lower Manhattan Skyline from  the Empire State Building to the Brooklyn Bridge and shows the Statue of Liberty standing tall in front of the Tribute in Light. I know this scene can bring to the surface many emotions. When I first displayed it at an art show ... some people were taken by the sheer beauty of the lighted skyline with the Statue of Liberty standing tall and proud in front of the lights. Others were angered at the loss of life and how their familiar skyline has been taken away. Some who viewed it were very vocal with their outrage at what had happened. Some stood in complete silence. One young lady who lived for a time in New York City got goose bumps. And more than one had tears in their eyes. 

Photographing the Tribute was somewhat cathartic for me. At first I was angry at the nonsensical loss of life, property, and economic health of our country that was caused by the terrorist acts of 9-11. But as I viewed the tribute night after night I became filled with pride. I was proud at how resilient the human spirit can be. When faced with what seems to be insurmountable destruction ... 6 months later ... ground zero is nearly clear. We are once again getting back to our normal lives. None of us will ever forget what happened on 9-11. We have pulled together as a nation like never before and are now ready to move forward again.

If I would never have sold the first print of this picture ... it would not have mattered. Just experiencing the Tribute in Light truly was reward enough.

 


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