“The Tragedy Was Too Great to Comprehend”: A Photographer’s Vision of the World Trade Center
On the evening of September 10, 2001, New York photographer Denny Tillman did something he often does. He placed his camera on a tripod and captured the view to the south from the roof terrace of his apartment in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. That night, he managed to render a breathtaking vista, revealing the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers jutting up over the skyline as a summer storm receded. “The rain had stopped,” he says, recalling how he “watched as the clouds swirled. At times the towers would disappear, then reappear…. Very magical but also ominous.”
The next morning, he happened to be watching, aghast, when a commercial airliner slammed into the north tower, its upper floors erupting in a ball of fire. “There was no sound at all,” Tillman recounts. “It went in completely silently. Seven or eight seconds later, I heard a muffled kaboom, like a cannon shot miles away.” Throughout the day, he and other tenants from his building watched the catastrophic events unfold, including the collapse of both structures. Horrified, he continued to photograph. “The tragedy was too great to comprehend. From our vantage point we knew that thousands of people were dead and injured and we were powerless to help.” That evening, after perhaps the longest and most tragic day in New York history, Tillman made a chilling photograph of a new set of swirling clouds: smoke plumes that rose from the rubble of what would soon become known as Ground Zero.
Vanity Fair, on the one-year anniversary of 9/11, was the first to publish Tillman’s diptych of the nights before and after the attacks.
But Tillman didn’t stop there. For two decades, he continued to document downtown Manhattan from that same spot, typically positioning a nearby water tower in the foreground as a visual anchor. As a result, his unique work chronicles the Twin Towers, their destruction, the rebuilding, and the finished 1 World Trade Center (actually the home of the offices of Vanity Fair) over a span of 20 years. He especially remembers the night of March 11, 2002, when, for the first time, he notes, “The memorial beams of light were lit. My camera, placed again in the exact position. The sadness and loss still so palpable. It is, to this day, and will always be.”
In its way, Tillman’s images, despite the unfathomable grief brought on by the assaults of 9/11, have become a slow-motion time-lapse of a cityscape healing. The years—and the perseverance of one man with a camera—have allowed for perspective, recalibration, and a semblance of rebirth.