"At the same time that the Twin Towers were falling, there were people having toothaches."

Wednesday, September 11, 2013 - 09:52 AM

I’m not sure how I found it in the first place, but the image that I most often think about when I think about September 11th was shot by a photographer named Melanie Einzig on the morning of the attacks. She didn't publish it for years because she was worried it would offend people.

Melanie Einzig

I wanted to get Melanie on the radio show, but we ended up too squeezed for time and it didn’t work out. However, when I spoke to her on the phone she mentioned that the writer Luc Sante had been moved by her photo as well, he'd even asked her for a print. I decided to call him to find out what it is about this picture, exactly.  

What drew you to the photo?

One of the things about it is that while it’s not like the Zelig figure exactly, it’s not unrelated to it. You have this historical moment occurring and there’s somebody in a corner of the picture who’s paying no attention whatsover. Looking at his watch as the zeppelin plows into the skyscraper. This postman going about his rounds completely unaware of the conflagration going on a few blocks down and above his head. It’s such an amazing picture – the fact that it exists, that that moment was recorded. It's one for the ages.

When I spoke to Melanie, she said that she waited a few years after the attacks to release the photo, and even then, she published it in a quiet way. She said she was worried the photo could offend people, or that it would be misinterpreted. What do you think she meant?

I can understand her decision not to publish it right away. It would have been attacked as being insufficiently attentive to the enormity of the day. It would have seemed irreverent. When something of that magnitude happens, everything seems to be in service of awe, shock, reverence – reaffirming basic values, casting out demons. Something that includes such a violent contradiction within its depiction of the event – it just feels wrong. People wouldn’t have been able to take it in right away.

Melanie is such a quick visual thinker that her eye is operating as a remote sensor far away from her intellectual brain. But at the time it wouldn’t have made any sense. Everybody was reeling.

Minutes after that picture was taken, you had all those people on Church street with vast clouds of debris pursuing them like a movie monster. Melanie’s photo argues in favor of there being more than one truth. There is a way of seeing this event as occurring in the middle of an ordinary day. At the same time that the twin towers were falling, there were people having toothaches. At the time you couldn’t give that credence – the enormity, the magnitude of the catastrophe seemed to crowd everything but itself out of the picture of life. Here you have evidence of that very simultaneity.

I think that for a lot of people, there’s a kind of agreed upon series of pictures that represent September 11th in their mind’s eye. Can you give me a quick run-down of what those images are?

You see the images of the planes approaching the towers,  the towers bursting into flames, the towers toppling, the clouds of debris and the people running, the hordes over the Brooklyn bridge. And then the soot-covered firefighters.

How is it that everyone agrees on a visual narrative so quickly, on pretty much the same set of images?

The thinking is done for us. The media processes these things. We come to recognize those images. On 9/11 itself, I was living in the country. I didn’t see TV until that evening. I went to a pizzeria to pick up a pizza, and just while I was waiting I saw the 5 or 6 images we’re talking about. It was literally the same strips of film being re-run again and again. I saw that series of pictures three dozen times in the time it took for my pizza to come out of the oven.

And that’s how it was for everyone, unless you were actually there, watching from a rooftop or across the river. Then you might’ve seen things that you know were different from what was retold by the media to the rest of the world. But if you were watching on TV or in newspapers – there wasn’t so much on the web back then – chances are you had your range of imagery preselected for you. So it would take quite an exercise of imagination for you to imagine any kind of alternative.

So besides the fact that it's a photo that is memorable and isn't one of those pre-selected images, what’s the value of Melanie’s photo?

The photo's value isn't news value. But we can be certain that it tells us something – it tells us that life went on,life took a minute before it noticed what was happening. It does tell us this. 

It also wasn’t a picture for the time. It’s a picture for reflection. The irony it contains (which is not irony ha-ha, it’s a deeper human reflective irony) is something that can only be contemplated at some remove. So I think that future generations will already be familiar with the major stock of images – the 5 or 6 that we talked about. They will have those just built into their mental archives, the way we have the Zapruder film or whatever, but that this is the picture that just puts an additional meditative layer upon all of that.


This is a repost of an interview we did a couple of years ago, for the tenth anniversary of the attacks.


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Comments [30]

Nancy from NY

I think the idea that people just had to go about their tasks and day is accurate here. My husband was working in his office building in lower Manhattan that day and even though he called me right after the plane hit the first tower, and I saw the rest on TV (I was at home in Queens, 8 months pregnant), one of my concerns was getting a phone call through to my prenatal massage clinic on the Upper East Side because I was worried that they would charge me for missing the appointment (obviously by that point the phones had completely gone out). Why was I so concerned about something so completely mundane on a day of great tragedy and destruction?

And then a few hours later I had driven to a pizzeria at the foot of the Williamsburg bridge. My husband and someone from his office were basically walking out of Manhattan at that point. I was totally freaking out, there was a giant plume of smoke in the sky, and I was furious that everyone in the pizza place seemed pretty calm and going about their day! People were ordering pizza, eating pizza, it was really weird.

One final note: not everyone was able to make their deliveries in lower Manhattan that day. Our infant car seat was supposed to be delivered via FEDEX that day to my husband's office, and the delivery was cancelled.

Sep. 17 2014 06:49 AM
Michael from London

You also have that famous/infamous photograph of those hipsters who were unfairly maligned simply because they were doing what anyone there would have done - just watch. They were safe or they weren't safe, it doesn't matter, they were powerless, the phone networks were cut off, the transport systems were down, there was simply nothing they could have done but watch, and they could only watch from inside the bubble of their normal lives. It was the same in London in 2005.

Sep. 17 2014 05:08 AM
Joseph Bell from Downtown

Have to agree with other posters, UPS is famous for closely monitoring its employees and imposing strict and at times harsh discipline. Having known a few delivery persons my hunch is that he felt he absolutely had no option but to carry on regardless of what else was going on. If you've ever worked this type of job you would understand.

Sep. 12 2014 09:22 PM
Rebecca from DC

I agree, this article reads a lot into this photo that doesn't seem to be there. Particularly after the second plane hit, there was no one within view of the Twin Towers who could possibly be "completely unaware of the conflagration." More likely, on an incredibly confusing, upsetting day, people defaulted to tasks that seemed more clear, more understandable: their delivery route, for instance. I remember watching on TV at my Washington, DC college and turning off the news so I could rush off to my 10:15 am class (which was obviously cancelled).

Or, who knows, the deliveryman could have been standing there staring at the Towers for an hour before the photographer got there. Yes, there's a great discussion to be had about the juxtaposition of the tragic with the mundane--but it's very different (and probably inaccurate) to say this photo shows someone who wasn't "paying attention" or was "unaware."

Sep. 12 2014 04:08 PM
Brian Bowman from Wisconsin

Isn't that a UPS man, not a USPS man?

Sep. 11 2014 02:21 PM
Gretchen from Seattle area

Regarding the agreed upon series of pictures, I feel one type was left out, which I will certainly never forget. People jumping from the upper stories of the burning buildings. Was this not included because it is just too excruciating to be in the canon? I know I closed a slideshow when I just couldn't risk that there were any more of them.

Sep. 11 2014 12:46 PM
Melle Larky from Asheville via Brooklyn

>This postman going about his rounds completely unaware of the conflagration going on a few blocks down and above his head.<

That's a pretty unfair characterization of a man who calmly doing his job. There's no way he was "completely unaware". Besides at this point, people who didn't know people actually in the buildings were mostly calling up friends and family to make sure everyone was ok and/or had they heard about the plane crashes. There was no huge panic or shock until the buildings fell. There's no way in hell he was "completely unaware" and I wish photographers would stop captioning as if they can read people's minds. Every photograph is an instant without its context.

Oct. 21 2013 04:32 PM

The hindsight view is a larger indictment than the real time perspective. It's very legitimate to think that after the first plane hit that 99% of people didn't understand what had happened. One can't tell from this shot how long ago the 2nd plane hit. The Ups driver engrossed in his work could have been totally unaware that a terrorist attack was afoot. And this event didnt reach catastrophic magnitudes until the buildings crumbled.

The real story would be to track down this UPS Fellow and ask for his memories of that day.

Sep. 21 2013 01:56 PM
derek from Round Lake, IL

Thanx for Jeff for a great poem by W.H. Auden. It is sad but true that majority of people are destined to live their lives in a very small and parochial way with their own triumphs and failures splashed like bugs on canvas of world history. It was true back in times immemorial and it is truer even now in era of new and improved feudalism where nuveau peasants live and work on electronic plantation of new social media. As far as OTM is concerned here is the quote from H.L. Mencken: "The freedom of speech belongs to the one who owns it." It was true back in 1922 and it is true as hell in 2013.

Sep. 16 2013 09:53 AM
Keira from Manhattan

No thanks—I have looked at more than enough 9/11 photos and videos to last multiple lifetimes.

Sep. 14 2013 02:31 PM
Ralph from Aliceville, Kansas

There are many kinds of heroes. We know about the heroes whose job was to respond to the disaster unfolding in those towers. We overlook other heroes, like the UPS man, who get up in the morning, nearly every morning, to go out and do what they are supposed to do. The police officers and firefighters and other first responders were doing the same thing, and had been unnoticed heroes long before 9/11.

Sep. 11 2013 05:55 PM

@Jeff What a lovely poem, thank you for sharing it.

Sep. 11 2013 01:23 PM
Jeff Sunbury from Austin, TX

Auden expresses a comparable observation in his poemL

Musée des Beaux Arts
by W. H. Auden

About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Sep. 11 2013 11:06 AM
burro from Santa Rosa, CA KQED

Talk about torturing a photo. The guy is a UPS driver. UPS drivers have one mission during the day, they deliver. They are on a schedule, and they are being evaluated as to how well they stick to the expected time it will take to deliver their stuff.

That guy didn't know that what was happening behind him was an historic event, but he did know that he would be judged as to how he took care of his business.

And aren't New Yorker's supposed to be blase' and jaded and immune to what other people consider noteworthy because they see it all every day and being impressed or distracted by what's going on around you shows a lack of sophistication and coolness?

It's just a picture, and the guy is just doing his job. No need to make it a bigger deal than it is. And I'm no New Yorker.

Sep. 19 2011 09:41 AM
SH from Seattle

Not relevant, but I was on my way to jury duty that day as well. Added a bit to the surrealism and national focus as it unfolded.

Sep. 18 2011 09:37 PM

Actually, if we spent less time sticking our nose in the affairs of other countries by minding our own business maybe there wouldn't have been a 9/11.

Sep. 18 2011 04:40 PM
Steve from Massachusetts

Can someone please explain Ms Einzig's Zelig reference. A picture of a blimp crashing into a skyscraper, and a guy looking at his watch?


Sep. 18 2011 10:57 AM
Potomacker from Nanjing


Sep. 17 2011 09:39 PM
Larry bell from Ririe, Id

You might look at it this way. Since a picture
can't show real feelings, then maybe this man
is dedicated worker doing his job.

Sep. 16 2011 02:43 PM
Doug Latino from Brooklyn, NY

Had no idea what was going on behind him? Hardly. Representative of how the rest of the country carried on? Pffft! He looks scared and shiny from sweat. It was a dry, crisp morning yes? My take is he was making a quick few last deliveries for the day. The blank look is because in his mind he is three steps ahead plotting his getaway. The split second of a photograph does not a moment make.

Sep. 15 2011 12:57 PM
Melanie Bullard from North Carolina

To me this photgraph is representative of what people around the country werre doing...going about their day to day trying to comprehend what was happening. It was a surreal situation, and this photo so caputres that. We didn't know we were under attack. We didn't know the towers would come down. We pressed forward as we do, until we could take action or grieve, and some of us are just now understanding the true depth of the sadness that exploded that day.

Sep. 14 2011 08:10 AM
Ron Rosenthal from California

It reminds me of a scene in the novel La Debacle, by Emile Zola. While a major battle rages, a farmer in the background plows his field.

Sep. 13 2011 05:06 PM
Morrie from Minneapolis

It's a compelling photograph from a gifted photographer. It is fair to say that Melanie's photo juxtaposes the horror of the 9/11 attacks with the sheer normalcy of a Manhattan UPS delivery man making his rounds. But I don't see him as blase and oblivious to the burning towers. Rather, I see in his eyes and demeanor an urgency coupled with fear. Perhaps he worried that he wouldn't complete his deliveries. Perhaps he worried that his own life was in jeopardy.

Sep. 12 2011 10:35 PM
Melanie Einzig

Dear Logan,

I know what you mean and good observation. I was using an Olympus Stylus point and shoot camera which I had taken with with me to jury duty that day. The flash went off automatically because the UPS man was in the shade. It creates the effect that he is superimposed on the backdrop but I swear to g-d : no photoshop.

Sep. 11 2011 10:29 PM
Rob from Williamsburg, Brooklyn

This photo very accurately portrays the moments right after the planes hit. I vividly remember walking towards the subway to go Manhattan from Brooklyn on 9/11 and stopping to stare at the burning towers before heading underground to go to work. Really it just seemed like a crazy emergency fire at the time... you would've never imagined that those buildings could collapse.

Sep. 11 2011 08:16 PM
Jan Dolphin from Wisconsin

Melanie's photos all have 2 sides to them - what you see and what's going on behind the scenes - you're caught in the 1st part of the
photo - what your mind readily recognizes - the 2nd part is the reality of what is really happening before your eyes! She is genius with the camera. She has another one of 9/11 which is also amazing: the normalcy of
life vs the actual event - so hard to equate the 2 of them into reality in 1 photo!

Sep. 11 2011 05:04 PM
sammy from arkansas

That good UPS man had probably seen and been aware of what was happening long before the others on the sidewalk. His dispatcher no doubt told him to continue untill necessity dictated otherwise. He would have been remiss in his duties had he done otherwise.

Sep. 11 2011 04:49 PM

The amazing thing to me is that anybody would take offense at this picture. Obviously, the fellow has no clue that anything is transpiring behind him...and why would he? He's not looking that way, and even the people who are looing that way have not yet absorbed what they're seeing.

For me, it captures the moment when life was still normal, before "Remember 9/11" came to dominate the American psyche.

Sep. 11 2011 02:37 PM
Logan from Pennsylvania

I regret to ask...But is it photoshopped? To my perception, the glint off the UPS man is very different that the glint off others and other objects in the picture. Yet the edge of his shoulders and the sidewalk beneath his feet appear to be within the same light as other objects, again to my perception.

Sep. 11 2011 12:29 PM

Dear PJ -

That's a UPS man not a post man. Pedantic point maybe but it also seems to be important as it's a very American trait to keep on task which he clearly is.

Sep. 09 2011 04:57 PM

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TLDR is a short podcast and blog about the internet by Meredith Haggerty. You can subscribe to the TLDR podcast here. You can follow our blog here. I tweet @manymanywords and @tldr.

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