Shouted Down by Snapshots- The 9/11 Photographic Record

The photographs of 9/11 hold an unparalleled, monumental power over us. So one picks up a 400-page book that promises to tell “The Stories Behind the Images” with high expectations, and with some nervousness, too: If it doesn’t live up to its billing, it will feel like just another meretricious contribution to the expanding shelf of 9/11 titles.

A former photo director for Life magazine (now “editor of creative development” at Vanity Fair), David Friend comes tantalizingly close to answering many of the questions about what these images of 9/11 mean and where that meaning comes from. But in this insider’s account of Twin Tower photojournalism, he refuses to wrestle with the toughest issues.

For instance, when it comes to Rudy Giuliani’s emergence as a heroic leader, Mr. Friend never stops to consider how the photographs themselves played a critical roll in the Mayor’s transformation, which he seems to accept as a necessary and therefore inevitable apotheosis. Without apparent irony, the author refers to Mr. Giuliani’s now-historic post-9/11 press conference as “really a much-needed photo opiate.” In his discussion of the resulting photographs, Mr. Friend points out admiringly the Mayor’s “clenched jaw of security.”

Is it too much (or too soon) to ask for a more skeptical look at the politics of photographed 9/11 heroism? At the very least, it’s unhelpful when Mr. Friend insists instead on seeing only hope and strength in such complex images. His preference for optimistic interpretation, and his lack of curiosity about that optimism, shuts off broad avenues of investigation.

When he discusses the U.S.-government-sponsored global tour of Joel Meyerowitz’s 9/11 photography, Mr. Friend writes that the work’s “pathos” was strong enough to justify the project, even if the traveling exhibit did become “a calling card of the Bush administration … the ultimate State Department p.r. coup—Ground Zero and its nameless heroes, recast as an export.”

Here Mr. Friend again seems perfectly positioned to give a fleshed-out biography of images that have acquired lives of their own—as New York iconography, as advertisement, as propaganda—but again he stops short.

Sometimes it’s his wholehearted reverence for photography that gets in the way. He comes across as an enthusiast instead of an evaluator. He writes, “I believe, in short, in the power of pictures … [even] in this era of political spin, agitprop, Photoshop, and made-for-TV reality.” He never explains why he brushes off the engrossing problem of the reliability of photography in the digital age—and the problem of our own inconsistent interpretations.

Chapter 1 of Watching the World Change offers a glimpse of the book’s unfulfilled potential. Here Mr. Friend creates a flowing narrative of the World Trade Center attacks, cinematically cutting between a variety of the witnesses who survived and documented the Twin Towers’ destruction. He segues from artists to financiers to first responders to photojournalists: “I felt him cover me,” a CBS reporter says of a fireman who pinned her down, saving her from the South Tower as it fell over them, and “I could feel the pounding of his heart against my backbone.” The chapter is a promising beginning: dramatic first-person accounts, a coherent storyline and shrewd insights into how different photographers—some barely experienced, some barely surviving—captured instantly historic images.

But the book rises to that level again only once—in the 12-page section of glossy color photos. When images are fiercely articulate, the words describing them had better be good. Mr. Friend’s are not. Like so many of us, he’s left tongue-tied by the enormity of the photographic record.

Sadly, words fail him at other times, too. About a widow’s scrapbook he writes, “They were a deep well into which she could dip to get a swig of Tommy. The drink was soothing, slightly narcotic, with a bitter nip … a picture-lined comforter, soft as down.”

When he quotes other commentators, Mr. Friend does himself no favors. For example, he shares with us these astute remarks by Temple University’s Fred Ritchin, first published in Aperture: “The destruction of the Twin Towers made for riveting imagery, but resulted in a series of instant histories whose intent was to produce immediate icons of the event. [They] were provided to replace doubt with the reward of instantaneous resurrection.” Wouldn’t it be fascinating to hear a veteran magazine editor’s view on the tendency to exploit images of violence? Does the exploitation comfort or enlighten us? Or does it just expand the magazine’s readership? Mr. Friend gives scant response to Mr. Ritchin’s provocative assertion—a sharp reminder of the ideas that the author leaves unexplored.

Mr. Friend also quotes communications consultant Nikki Stren, who wonders: “The question is: What’s the truth you’re trying to show when you keep trotting out the same pictures?” If only David Friend could tell us.

Max Abelson is a reporter at The Observer.