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Documenting destruction


After September 11: Images from Ground Zero. Photographs by Joel Meyerowitz/ The London Blitz. Photographs by Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs At the Museum of London, London Wall, London EC2 until 14 April

Joel Meyerowitz's documentation of Ground Zero stands in a long tradition of photographs of war-torn buildings that has provided the medium with some of its most haunting images. These include, for example, George Barnard's photographs of cities devastated during the American Civil War (1866), which in retrospect seem a chilling prefiguration of scenes in Dresden and Nagasaki, and J Andrieu's pictures of Paris in the aftermath of the Commune (1871).

Surprisingly for such a distinguished photographer, this is Meyerowitz's first solo show in the UK. Born in 1938, he is known primarily for his candid street photographs of New York, taken with a small hand-held camera, which owed a debt to his mentors, Robert Frank and Henri Cartier-Bresson.He subsequently began using an antiquated large-format Deardoff view camera, which called for the more calculated compositions that filled his book St Louis & the Arch (1976), and which he has used to record Ground Zero.

Initially denied access to the site because it was a designated crime scene, Meyerowitz was surely right to insist that a photographic record was made of the destruction wrought by the events of 11 September, and of the painful process of recovery. As he was the sole photographer allowed unimpeded access to the site, these photographs will remain important historical documents.

Their sincerity cannot be doubted and many possess a melancholic beauty.

They are, however, strangely unmoving.

Why is this? We can dismiss the argument heard at the opening that the subject would have been better treated in black and white.

Meyerowitz has been one of the leading proponents of colour photography and his previous work has given the lie to this contention.

If we look at Barnard's Civil War photographs or Alain Resnais' film Nuit et Brouillard (1956) - surely the most harrowing documentary made about the death camps of the Second World War - both derive their power from presenting their subjects in an almost matter-of-fact manner, leaving us free to imagine the horrors involved. By contrast, Meyerowitz's photographs of Ground Zero tend to stir not our own worst imaginings but to evoke other even more horrific images of 11 September, which have been seared indelibly into our consciousness. Images beget images and are neutered as a result.

Although you would scarcely know it from the publicity, Meyerowitz's pictures are accompanied by some truly remarkable photographs of the Blitz, from the Museum of London's own collection. They were taken with a second-hand Leica and Kodak halfplate camera by two City of London police officers, Arthur Cross and Fred Tibbs, as part of their official duties.

These animated images form a poignant contrast to the more contemplative examination of Ground Zero. One view in particular - a low angle shot of Queen Street Place (1941) with fire hoses sinuously stretching into the far distance between rows of gutted buildings - is a reminder that often the images most humble in intent ultimately prove the most powerful.

Robert Elwall is curator of the RIBA Photographs Collection

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