In the photograph Thomas Hoepker took on September 11, 2001, a group of New Yorkers sit chatting in the sun in a park in Brooklyn.
Behind them, across brilliant blue water, in an azure sky, a terrible cloud of smoke and dust rises above lower Manhattan from the place where two towers were struck by hijacked airliners the same morning and have collapsed, killing, by fire, smoke, falling or crushing and fragmentation in the buildings’ final fall, nearly 3,000 people.
Ten years on, this is becoming one of the iconic photographs of 9/11, yet its history is strange and tortuous.
Hoepker, a senior figure in the renowned Magnum photographers’ co-operative, chose not to publish it in 2001 and to exclude it from a book of Magnum pictures of that day.
Only in 2006, on the fifth anniversary of the attacks, did it appear in a book, and then it caused instant controversy.
Critic and columnist Frank Rich wrote about it in the New York Times. He saw in this undeniably troubling picture an allegory of America’s failure to learn any deep lessons from that tragic day. “The young people in Mr Hoepker’s photo aren’t necessarily callous. They’re just American.”
In other words, a country that believes in moving on, they have already moved on, enjoying the sun despite the scene of mass carnage that scars the fine day.
“I can’t help thinking the five apparently unmoved New Yorkers resemble the characters in the famous 1990s TV comedy Seinfeld, who in the show’s final episode are convicted under a Good Samaritan law of failing to care about others,” Rich said.
Walter Sipser, identifying himself as the guy in shades at the right of the picture, said he and his girlfriend were “in a profound state of shock and disbelief”.
Hoepker, they both complained, had photographed them without permission in a way that misrepresented their feelings and behaviour.
Well, you can’t photograph a feeling. But another five years on since it surfaced, it seems pointless to argue about the morality of the people in the photo, or of Hoepker, or his decision to withhold the photo.
It is now established as one of the defining pictures of that day — with the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Centre’s destruction approaching, the Observer Review republished it August as the 9/11 photograph.
Among hundreds of pictures, by amateurs as well as professionals, that horrify and transfix us because they record the details of a crime that outstripped imagination — even Osama bin Laden dared not expect such a result — this one stands out as a more ironic, distanced, and therefore, artful, image.