Steven Siegel

Long-time city photographer Steven Siegel recalls one of his favorite subjects, the World Trade Center.

Pictures of the old World Trade Center don't need an introduction on this or any other day, but long-time city photographer Steven Siegel certainly deserves one. Siegel has been documenting New York for three decades. Some of his strongest work shows a much grittier New York of the 1980s; earlier this year he told the urban photoblog 12ozProphet that young people "express astonishment" over how much the city has changed:

When young people today look at my shots from the 1980's, they are aghast. To them, New York of the 1980’s is almost unrecognizable. And they are right.

The word unrecognizable certainly describes the New York found in some of Siegel's pictures of the World Trade Center. In one image that feels like it belongs with out-takes from the original "Planet of the Apes," people have planted themselves on sand dunes in front of the towers as if relaxing on a regular beach. Today the dunes are Battery Park City, and the only time you'll see sand there is when a Corona commercial comes on TV.

"There was a period of time in which it was a beach on lower Manhattan," he says. "It's amazing. Right in front of the World Trade Center was a giant beach."

Many of Siegel's photographs frame the city's majestic structures against an unusual foreground object, an approach that asks viewers to adjust their expectations. His haunting shot of the Trade Center beneath a barren tree branch on Ellis Island is one. A black-and-white shot of the towers peeking above the burned-out dock pilings of Jersey is another. (His Brooklyn Bridge, set behind a shattered windshield, is yet another.)

"Here is this 110-story structure that's visible from 50 miles around and has an infinite number of vantage points throughout the metropolitan area," he says. "It's kind of like a polestar."

Siegel currently lives and works in New Jersey but made his home on the Upper West Side for many years. He says he went to Jersey City on September 12, 2001, to watch the smoldering ruins where the World Trade Center had stood just a day earlier. Since then, viewing the New York skyline without its familiar twin towers has felt to him "like seeing someone with a missing limb."

"You want it and expect it to be there and it's not there," he says. "It has a ghostly presence. Its absence implies a presence." 

As Siegel writes in the introduction to his Flickr set of World Trade Center photos, he hopes his images "convey a sense of that peculiar loss."

All images courtesy of Steven Siegel — not for reproduction without permission.

About the Author

Eric Jaffe
Eric Jaffe

Eric Jaffe is the former New York bureau chief for CityLab. He is the author of A Curious Madness and The King's Best Highway.

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