Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.
In the last four years, artist Jonathan Hyman has taken over thirteen thousand photographs of vernacular public memorials created in the wake of September 11, 2001. Hyman is the only person known to have so extensively documented this phenomenon.
Hyman spoke passionately about his subject, calling the memorials “powerful expressions of the raw, personal, and collective emotions that Americans experienced.” He sees them as a “prototype for twenty-first century American folk art.”
Although an important part of American history and identity, there is very little evidence left of these memorials. Some have been destroyed or removed, and others have been weathered out of existence. Museums have for the most part been uninterested in collecting them.
Speaking on the difficulties he ran into trying to get his work exhibited, Hyman observed that “many people can’t separate themselves from their politics… they see these photographs as hot material… they told me I had to wait fifty years for this to be acceptable.” Some of the people who turned him down saw the aggression expressed in some of the memorials and couldn’t get past it, explained Hyman. “They said, “‘his is not my flag, these are not my people,’ and that was that.”
The very fact that they are “hot material” makes the photographs powerful, a vital part of public discourse about what it means to be an American in the twenty-first century. Hyman spent the greater part of an hour showing the audience two full slide reels of his photographs, asking questions along the way about class, religion, power, and a new American iconography.
Most of the photographs were taken in a two-hundred mile radius of New York City, and Hyman captured many familiar images from the area–“God Bless America” signs on diners and bingo parlours, cars painted with bombs aimed at Osama Bin Laden’s head, “God forgives… but we don’t” written on the side of a house, bumper stickers saying “God Bless the World Community.”
The strength of Hyman’s work lies in its sheer breadth, something that becomes clear with his collection of flag photographs. He has pictures of American flags on barn roofs, on fire hydrants, picnic tables, rocks, children’s shoes, low-rise jeans, cars (one sporting the slogan: “Cruising for Freedom… Because We Can”), houses turned into flags, even a flag painted across six tree trunks in Connecticut.
Another focus of Hyman’s work is murals. He noted that he found very few memorials in African-American neighborhoods, but many more in Hispanic, Italian, and Irish neighborhoods. The lack of permanent murals in upper-class communities also raises an interesting question: are the upper class more inclined towards the ephemeral peace vigils, while the working class need to express their emotions through more permanent means?
We saw pictures of a handball court in Brooklyn covered with the name of everyone who died in the attacks, of a mural in Queens depicting a wasteland with the Hulk “ready to rumble,” of towers depicted as burning candles or towers of light, of angels embracing the towers, and of Big Bird waving a flag in front of the now-bright-pink towers.
“We have anthropomorphized the towers,” claimed Hyman, pointing to towers ascending to heaven and “tower tombstones,” memorials that list their date of birth and date of death, as evidence. Another common thread in these memorials is that “they act like the towers never came down.” There are many examples of intact skylines in the memorials, but not quite so many of the towers falling down. He also commented on the re-invention of firemen and policemen as “folk icons” after 9/11.
Other taboos include planes and the tower jumpers. Hyman has documented only one mural depicting a plane, one that slammed halfway through the wall of a strip mall; similarly, he has only seen one mural picturing a jumper. Hyman thinks a reason for this taboo may be the rumors that many of the jumpers were pushed instead of choosing to jump.
While not strictly a taboo, Hyman also noted that depictions of the Pentagon are surprisingly rare in 9/11 memorials. Even in Washington itself, there are murals with the towers, but without the Pentagon anywhere to be seen.
Many of Hyman’s photographs are made all the more poignant by their unexpected juxtapositions. Two boys on a bike ride past figures of a fireman and a policeman; a Muslim woman in full hijab is stared down by an angry eagle on her way to the store. Hyman said, “I never realized how many Muslims were walking around New York until I started taking pictures.”
The last group of photographs Hyman showed was devoted to tattoos, from a Jewish man who placed a Star of David and flag on his chest to the man who placed a full mural on his back in order to memorialize his father. Hyman is still on the lookout for even one woman with a tattoo.
No matter where you were on September 11th, Hyman’s art is a moving testimonial to the event. In August 2006, the Smithsonian Museum of American History will be mounting “Landscapes of Loss: Visual Responses to 9/11,” an exhibition of Hyman’s photos.