PetaPixel

One of Those Shots… September 13, 2001

howthingsstand

I was divorced about a week, so it was perhaps understandable that I was already feeling a little shellshocked when I started another day of work as an advertising photographer at Filenes in Boston on September 11, 2001.

A group of us had just come out of our morning production meeting shortly after 9:00AM when somebody yelled out that New York was under attack. We all made a beeline for the staff cafeteria behind the studio to join most of the store’s several hundred administrative staff crowded around a television set, silently watching the unbelievable horror unfolding in lower Manhattan and Washington.

I will never forget the look of utter despair on the face of the normally jocular senior design manager sitting next to me as the first tower fell.

Shortly afterward, an HR rep stood up and told us it was OK to leave if we wanted to. Maybe because we were working on a high floor of a building smack dab in the middle of the business district of a major city, most of the group didn’t need additional urging.

Others (myself included), not yet knowing the focus or the full scope of the attack, chose to stay and watch. But when the North Tower collapsed a short time later, our orderly but noticeably anxious group of stragglers moved toward the elevators. I took the stairs.

The ride home was a tense 45-minute subway and bus exodus with an uncharacteristically chatty scrum of total strangers, all packed together like paranoid sardines nervously acknowledging our potential “fish-in-a-barrel” target status.

I spent the next two days — just my dog and me and a television set — hunkered down in my dark, half-empty house in Watertown (not far from where, coincidentally, the Boston Marathon bombers would be killed and captured twelve years later). The eerie silence outside was only occasionally interrupted by the roar of a pair of fighter jets patrolling the airspace above metropolitan Boston.

I ventured back into the city two days later, on September 13th. My goal was to eventually get back to work, but I first needed to try to somehow document something about the terrible events that everyone by now knew had begun just across the harbor at Logan Airport.

The news media were starting to take note of the spontaneous sprouting of the Stars and Stripes everywhere, on highway overpasses, front lawns, fire trucks, cars, lapels and, very prominently, on Middle Eastern-owned businesses. Going with that, I was struck by the patriotic display at a familiar closet-sized lottery and cigarette vendor a half-block away from Filenes on Winter Street.

I’d always chuckled at the tackiness of it all, but that day the crazy spiral of flashing lights and signs advertising energy drinks, phone cards, and the current Powerball jackpot receded behind a batch of cheap American flags.

Still thoroughly convinced of the superiority of film photography over digital at the time, I had my street gear with me. Inside a canvas shoulder bag was a “Texas Leica” — a Fuji 6×9 medium format rangefinder permanently fitted with a 90mm “normal” lens — and my favorite camera/lens combination of all time: a REAL Leica, an M6 with a 35mm Summicrons for a wider field of view. Thinking that the shot was probably the spiral of lights framed by the flags, I knelt down, swung the bag around in front of me, hauled out the Fuji and framed up a tight composition.

Rangefinder cameras like the Fuji and Leica are designed to be used with both eyes open, the right one peering through a small “peephole” viewfinder while the left is free to look past the side of the camera at the scene being photographed. It takes a little getting used to, but once mastered, it is a really comfortable way to work. It also expands your sense of the scene to your peripheral vision, and that’s what alerted me to the person standing just to my left.

With the big camera still in front of my face, I shifted my eyes to the left. Unbelievably, a Muslim woman wrapped head to toe in a long, dark garment was staring intently, not at me, but at the flags I was photographing. The clock was now ticking.

I knew I had the promise of an iconic image that captured a historic moment in time as well as one that might even hint at the standoff between radical Islam and the West. The problem was that the Fuji’s 90mm lens was too long to take in the flags and signs and the woman — I would have to back up several feet to get it all in.

Fearing that doing so would tip her off and cause her to move away, I kept the Fuji in front of my face with my left hand, feigned interest in the flags while blindly groping in my bag for the wide angle Leica with my right, and hoped the whole time that she would just hold still.

Street photographers know how to keep their cameras ready to capture fleeting moments, both by roughly presetting exposure and by using the hyperfocal focus point of their lens to create a range of acceptable focus (auto focus is great, but not always as responsive).

In my case, the Leica was already set to be in focus from roughly 6-10 feet, and the exposure hadn’t changed much from images I had made earlier. All I needed to do was to quickly lower the Fuji and raise the Leica, lean back about a foot, frame the shot and release the shutter. It happened in an instant, but when I wound the film for a second frame, the woman became aware of me and moved on. I got 2 frames in all, and I instinctively knew the second one wasn’t any good.

But here’s the part I like — I knew with certainty that the first shot was going to kick ass. Unlike digital, you don’t get to see a film shot on a little screen on the back of your camera right away, you have to wait for it to be processed and printed. This forces a discipline on film shooters that is sometimes overlooked by digital shooters, but can be even more important now than it used to be.

Expert use of a film camera required a deep understanding of both the device itself and the photographic process. We had to know our gear and our materials pretty well to have confidence that we did, indeed, get the shot.

Rangefinder cameras like the Leica and the Fuji do not “black out” during the exposure like digital SLRs do, so when I released the shutter on that first shot, I was totally tuned in to the split second in time being burned onto the film. Instead of fiddling with autofocus points and “chimping” the LCD preview, I saw the moment of exposure with my eyes. And because I knew the Leica and I knew the process, I knew I had made one of those shots.


 
  • http://www.eriklaurikulo.se/ Erik Lauri Kulo

    Damn it. I hate to be a critic of some personal story. But i just don’t get why this is “the shot”. And I don’t buy the “film is superior”-argument in this article. Once you’ve worked with both mediums profoundly, perhaps you’ll have more respect for digital. I like both mediums and banter on digital when the image by no means would’ve fit film nor digital better just seems pointless.

  • olafs_osh

    …and here we go again…

  • Splatter Expert

    Ho hum shot. Doesn’t really warrant the story accompanying it. Proclaiming it an “iconic image” is simply self indulgent hyperbole.

  • armorfoto

    Yikes. Lighten up, guys. Digital is superior, that’s why I teach it exclusively. This happened 12 years ago, before I got religion, and like it or not, it’s a strong shot. Perhaps the story is self indulgent, but isn’t that the reason we share ourselves so generously online?

  • yeah nah

    sharing ourselves is one thing… having a photo blog pick up the pathetic story and “iconic image” and running it as if its somehow important to anyone other than the self indulgent author is another thing altogether

  • Dikaiosune01

    I really don’t see this as an argument. If it was an argument, at somepoint it should be telling you to “shoot film.” It sounds as if you are projecting the “Film vs. digital” dispute onto the article. The article was written as a personal narrative, about his experiences and what he was able to accomplish with his camera, and by extention, film.

  • Dikaiosune01

    chill out.
    The shot isn’t “iconic,” but does represent a very difficult time in American History. The narrative still has merit that speaks to the psychology and thought process of a street photographer. As to the reason why this blog choose to pick up this story is none of my business; but I enjoyed it. Even though, that is probably enough justication for the people running Petapixel, they are not accountable to you.

  • mrbeard

    Great composition but without the accompanying text i’d struggle to notice it was a Muslim, maybe more iconic with a full body shot,

  • armorfoto

    it did block up a little bit in its translation to low res on the screen, but the print is pretty impressive. But then again, who cares about prints
    these days other than pathetic, not-so-iconic self-indulgent types like me?

  • armorfoto

    Great point, and I’ll keep it in mind going forward. I write fairly regularly for Petapixel, long, personal, thoughtful and hopefully entertaining pieces on my life as a working photographer and educator. The editors do like to mix the tech stuff in with some more experiential, picture related stories, and that’s what they say I’m pretty good at (at least up until now, apparently!). If you’re interested, you could click on my name above to read some of my other stuff or on the “About” link below to read my bio. My next piece is about this very cool little insulated espresso cup shaped like a Zeiss Touitt lens that’s about to hit the market- I thought it was great, except for the fact that the lenscap-shaped lid keeps falling off on the sample they sent me. I wish they’d used the same cap they put on the Nikon 24-70 mug- that one fits tight as a drum. My review should be on the site in a few days.

  • Rabi Abonour

    It’s a little hard to read because everything important – the woman and the flags – is in the bottom third of the shot. There’s a lot of clutter. Still a nice picture, though, and a great story.

  • pgb0517

    I wonder if some commenters even read the story. He barely got the shot at all. He never said it was a Pulitzer shot. He said it was “an iconic image that captured a historic moment in time.” And it was. Photojournalism has a different set of aesthetics than a carefully predicted image. Great shot, great story. The rest of you … sheesh.

  • Rabi Abonour

    1) I said I thought it was a nice photo. It’s not like I viciously attacked the photographer.

    2) mrbeard said he had issues reading the photo. I posit that this is due to the way the photo is composed. An editor would almost certainly crop this way in. Photojournalism does have a slightly different set of aesthetics that other branches of photography, but this is not an aesthetic issue. My argument is not “This photo would be prettier were it composed differently,” but rather “This photo would be more meaningful on a journalistic level were in composed differently.”

    armorfoto – I hope you understand that I am not trying to insult you. As I originally stated, I loved the story and liked the photo fine, but given mrbeard’s issue I felt it appropriate to add my opinion. Thanks for contributing a thoughtful post to the site.

  • Rabi Abonour

    1) I said I thought it was a nice photo. It’s not like I viciously attacked the photographer.

    2) mrbeard said he had issues reading the photo. I posit that this is due to the way the photo is composed. An editor would almost certainly crop this way in. Photojournalism does have a slightly different set of aesthetics that other branches of photography, but this is not an aesthetic issue. My argument is not “This photo would be prettier were it composed differently,” but rather “This photo would be more meaningful on a journalistic level were in composed differently.”

    armorfoto – I hope you understand that I am not trying to insult you. As I originally stated, I loved the story and liked the photo fine, but given mrbeard’s issue I felt it appropriate to add my opinion. Thanks for contributing a thoughtful post to the site.

  • Ryan

    I swear I have never seen more insecure people on one site, 90% of the comments are people bashing other photographers work. I would love to see some of the portfolios of the constant nay-sayers or the links to their published work. Every accomplished photographer I’ve ever worked with is confident enough in their work to help others and offer a “critique” to other so they can improve, saying it sucks doesn’t help.

  • armorfoto

    not at all, rabi! I really appreciate your comments, and I agree completely that the shot reads badly here. Some of the other messages are a little rough, tho. I mean it’s only a p[icture and a story, right?

    There’s a higher res version of the shot on my website http://www.armorfoto.com/#a=0&at=0&mi=2&pt=1&pi=10000&s=22&p=0 that looks much closer to how I print it.

  • C-Boogie

    9/13 was the day that got me back into photography. I had a corporate job as an art director and was fired that day. I picked up over the next few weeks and started my freelance business – which eventually, out of necessity, lead me back into photography after many years away. It was mainly product photography, but that of course lead me into personal work.

    It’s a funny thing how photography and communication has changed since then. On 9/13 we all felt like we were in this together. Now look at us. Overly critical, disrespectful, empty.

    I think you made a very good image. You had the presence of mind to put several pieces of the puzzle together and serendipity stepped in and added a much needed human element. Most of us were staring off into space wondering what in the hell was going on/what was next. Kudos for getting out there and shooting through the delirium.

    Is the image iconic? It is if you know what the definition of iconic is. I just wish that i could see the woman’s face. I’ve made the mistake of posting experimental or interesting-to-me photos online only to have to waste time trying to defend the image way out of the parameters of why I’d posted it in the first place. I like where you are writing from. I understand it. I know what it’s like to nail a shot. I also get haunted by the shots I’ve missed. It feels good to get one though. Especially one you didn’t expect to get. Thanks for sharing. I hope the other responders enjoy your review of the lens-like coffee mug. Some folks are really into that sort of thing.

  • Dikaiosune01

    Here’s mine. I’m not of afraid of criticism nor juvenile bashing. The former is constructive, while the latter rolls off my back.
    Dikaiosune01.wordpress.com

  • Haoyuan Ren

    Brings me back to the time when I saw this in the classroom. :)

  • David C

    I don’t understand the big deal about this either.

  • theart

    The shot was taken in 2001. At the time digital hadn’t come anywhere close to catching up with film.

  • armorfoto

    Nice stuff. Thanks for contributing to Petapixel in a positive way! We need more photographers here talking about what we do with all this gear every now and then.

  • lala

    ahh, take a photo of a muslim woman, with a Leica and murican flags in the picture. omg.

  • lala

    but he was divorced about a week and had a leica.

  • http://www.eriklaurikulo.se/ Erik Lauri Kulo

    The article is written today though. So it makes the comparison ever-so-more confusing.

  • Zet

    What a terribly average picture. I regret looking at it, I regret reading about it. Well, the only reason I read it because I couldn’t believe they would be describing this photo, I thought it was something else.
    yeah, you made “one of those shots”, one of the boring to death amateur shots. And now you go brag about it because you have a Leica and shot on film. Get a life.

  • Josss

    I’m also curious which Fuji “rangefinder” this dumbass is talking about? I bet he thinks X-something-something is a rangefinder. Dumbass.

  • Ryan

    Very nice gallery! Your comments weren’t the ones I was refering to, although you weren’t saying this was the most iconic picture ever you stated your professional opnion. I don’t think people should LOVE everything on here but I wish they could act like mature adults. Kudos again for posting your site and your work!

  • Dikaiosune01

    comments like these are, in my opinion, borderline inappropriate. If I wouldn’t say it to the authors face, why hide behind a name? But I’m not one to turn my back on an opportunity to educate someone.
    The Fuji “rangefinder” that the author is talking about is often called the “Texas leica” It’s big. It’s plastic. It shoots medium format film. And “yes!” it is a rangefinder. The only “X” in it is the film form 6×9. It can be easily searched for on ebay or google if you search for “Fuji 6×9 rangefinder” or “Fujica GW690.” Fuji did make some amazing cameras before the “X” series.