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A formal analysis of "Firefighter in the rubble of Ground Zero New York, NY"

Posted April 20, 2017 by Aaron Brethorst

This is a short paper I wrote for a History of Photography class I took last winter. Formal analyses describe art through the forms that we can see within them. Eugene Richards is a documentary photographer with a career that spans decades. His work is receiving its first museum retrospective this summer at Eastman House in Rochester, NY.

Photograph by Eugene Richards of a firefighter sitting in the middle of rubble at the Ground Zero site in 2001

Eugene Richards, Exhausted, still wearing his mask, a firefighter sits alone in the rubble, November 11, 2001, from Stepping Through the Ashes

In this black and white photograph, a solitary man sits on a metal girder surrounded by clouds of gas or steam, rubble, twisted pieces of metal, and three excavators. The silhouetted man sits on a bent girder atop a pile of twisted metal beams and rubble. The man wears a gas mask that obscures his features, a firefighter’s jacket, and is holding a helmet. Based on the presented visual cues, we can assume that the man is a firefighter.

The photograph, viewed at Photographic Center Northwest, appears to be about 16x20" in size. It is printed on a smooth, glossy paper and appears to be a gelatin silver print. It is matted with white mat board and housed in an unadorned black frame. The photograph has a visible film grain structure that resembles popular reportage films, like Kodak Tri-X.

Very few assumptions can be made about the location of the image from information within it, but the accompanying label describes it as being the World Trade Center wreckage in New York City two months after the September 11, 2001 terror attacks.

This picture features a deep depth of field, with its foreground, middle ground, and background all in focus. Several elements within the frame conspire to move the viewer's eye towards the figure at the center, especially the silhouetted excavator in the foreground and the highlighted bent piece of metal on the center-right. The contrast between the middle ground and background further draws the viewer’s eye to the silhouetted figure. Clearly, we are meant to survey this scene, see what the firefighter sees, and feel a sense of loss.

The photograph is visually very dark and has a somber, funereal feel. The firefighter in the center is sitting on a bent girder from one of the World Trade Center towers, destroyed in the worst terrorist attacks on United States soil in history. The viewer may reasonably assume that the firefighter lost friends or even family members in the attacks, as 411 emergency workers in total died. The body language of the firefighter echoes how the photographer must have felt amidst the wreckage. The firefighter’s solitary respite underscores the sense of loss and death that permeates the image. The masked features of the firefighter serves both as a chilling reminder of the deadly nature of the site, and allows us to project ourselves into his position, imagining how he must have felt in the moment.

Our vantage point places us above the wreckage, allowing us to look down on the firefighter. This allows us to better survey the extent of the devastation and makes him appear physically small. His small stature speaks to his powerlessness and loss, and inability to control global events. The photographer did a masterful job of visually representing the pain he must have felt on that day in November.

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