A Picture That Was Never Taken

October 22, 2015  •  2 Comments

One morning looking out of the window of our apartment, I saw people moving around tarp-covered equipment on the top level of the Battery Park garage. I wouldn’t pay attention to it if not for the ever-present sensitivity of timing for the downtown New York – the month of September. So, I stayed awhile, glued to the window. Presently, the tarps were removed and the equipment turned out to be two banks of projectors for the 9/11 memorial light show. I left home for work and returned late in the evening when the projectors were on, blazing, throwing two beams of blue light straight up into the night sky. For a stronger effect of the light small pieces of gold foil were blown into the path of the beams. Up close it looked like flocks of golden moths dancing in the light. I hurried back home to get my camera and the tripod. While setting up downstairs in the cherry tree alley that stretches from the old pier building to Rector Street, I became aware of people around me staring at the lights, taking pictures of the lights and each other with the light beams behind them. The whole atmosphere was a bit too playful, lighthearted, considering the somber occasion.It resembled a fireworks night in a small town – that Battery Park City tries very hard to be - or even a fair – soft dark shadows of the trees,  street lights reflected in the asphalt and still warm and balmy September air resonating with laughter and excited voices. I set my camera with a wide angle lens. After setting the tripod elevation in order for me to look straight up, and while tilting the tripod head so that the whole visible span of the beams was covered, I saw something in my viewfinder that instantly created several statements in my mind. Surprisingly vivid, the two equally matching light streams created an inverted “V”, strongly exaggerated by the wide angle of the lens.  The first and the most galling statement was that the proof of the Lobachevsky geometry, stating that parallel lines meet at a point in space, was right there in my viewfinder. A second, and a less sensational one, was that a “triangle” rule of composition finally became clear to me and it was also confirmed by an authority in non-Euclid geometry. The third didn’t have a chance to form, because I heard someone talking to me. A young couple was standing next to my setup, the young man telling me that he was a photographer himself, and he was asking if he could take a peek in the viewfinder. He looked into the viewfinder and said:”Awesome!” Then he asked me something else: “Are you using time exposure?” Indeed I was. He pointed out that the time exposure would show all these individual pieces of foil as streaks, and not as they looked to the eye. He was absolutely right about it, though what struck me more than his observation was the word “time”, and how symbolic was its usage. So much time since the buildings and the thousands vanished in the sooty cloud of their fiery death. So much time we were carrying that memory with us, first looking at the ruins, than at the empty and muddy crater in the ground and now at the new buildings growing taller every day in a defiant statement to the world. It also reminded me about what happened to me in September  2001.On September 18, 2001 I walked the streets of New York City with my camera. To my chagrin I found it difficult to use it.  Somehow it felt sacrilegious to take pictures at a time of mourning, and I had felt mourning and grief all throughout my walk. I subconsciously avoided the Ground Zero area because of fear and incomprehension of the scope of the catastrophe, and my body was moving in a circle, like a crippled insect or a mechanical toy with one wheel slanted – no lower than the 10th Street, towards the Meatpacking District, back to Union Square and finally Gramercy Park, where I usually end up on a normal day.  There was an on-going vigil at Union Square – candles, flags and posters. One sculpture, in particular, caught my eye.  It was made out of the miniature personalized license plates that are usually sold in souvenir shops – plates with names on them like John, Jack, Lucy etc.  The plates were used like bricks to erect two towers – it was such an obvioussymbolism that it would have looked corny at any other time or place.  Here and now, after the catastrophe, these mini-Twin Towers were heart wrenching to look at.  Somehow I eventually wound up by the Armory on Lexington and 29th Street.   The Armory was set up as a relief and first aid station and later, when no injured arrived, was turned into a place where one could go to look for missing persons. Every surface was plastered with ads, signs, notes and photographs.  Most of the photographs were of happy, young people, sometimes surrounded by their family, sometimes with children, sometimes with their dates or playing with pets. People were dressed in tuxedos, evening gowns, bathing suits or donning camping gear. The pictures were random – ripped out of a frame, album or scrapbook – they were needed now, today, as if the missing person would be found sooner if these pictures were out there. A similar pictorial vigil was on the outside walls of the armory. It was a gallery of portraits, family scenes and office group pictures, except these were larger prints, there was more space.  These were printed on office and home computer printers. It was here that I saw something that was as heart wrenching and symbolic as the sculpture in Union  Square. While I was walking inside and around the armory, a light drizzle and wind started. The prints on the walls were flapping in rhythm with the wind. One of them in particular caught my attention. The tape on the bottom of the print came off the wet wall and it was waving and billowing in the wind. It was a pretty decent professional portrait of a young woman who posed for the picture and the portrait was bleeding.  Rivulets of red paint were running down the length of it – blood tears of a weeping icon - a perfectly terrifying cover shot for a weekly magazine.  I felt as if a weight was attached to my hands, restraining my arms. I couldn’t move them.  It was simply impossible to take my camera out, frame, focus, set exposure and push the release button.  It was a rare moment probably familiar to many photographers: when one is so incapacitated by emotion that it is impossible to do the job, fulfill your social obligations or follow your artistic instincts.


September 2001- 2009



© M.Serman

9/11 Memorial Lights9/11 Memorial LightsBeams of light projected from the Battery Park garage on 9/11 every year.



Lev Shekhtman(non-registered)
Very moving and the picture is great!
Elena Ab(non-registered)
Super made me crey
No comments posted.

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