NEW YORK - On the morning of September 11, 2001, when photographer Ron Agam heard about the terror attack on the Twin Towers, he left his apartment on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and headed for his office in Soho. He took his cameras, film and other equipment and, together with his assistant, made his way on his bicycle to the disaster area.
"It was very bizarre," recalls Agam, sitting on an armchair in his giant studio in Long Island City, an industrial area that in recent years has become very popular with artists. "Everyone was fleeing northward or trying to leave Manhattan and I was going in the opposite direction, toward the towers. At a certain stage, I encountered the police barriers in south Manhattan. They were letting people leave the area but under no circumstances could they enter it. From a distance, I could see the first tower collapsing. I also saw Rabbi Avi Weiss [a well-known modern Orthodox rabbi] arriving at the barricades. We recognized one another. The policemen also recognized him. They allowed priests and rabbis to enter, and after they let him in, he convinced them to allow me to enter. In that way, we managed together to get past a few more 'layers' of policemen and security officers. And then we saw the second tower collapsing.
"The whole area was covered in dust," he remembers. "I wrapped my face in a scarf. I saw someone distributing surgeons' masks and took one. All along the route there were policemen, firemen and fire engines that had been destroyed. I managed get closer to the buildings. At certain times, there was a silence that froze our blood. From far away, it was possible to see fires blazing. I felt as if we were witnessing an event like that at Pearl Harbor."
Agam, 51, is speaking fluent Hebrew, even though he lived in Israel for only two years. Sitting in his studio, he resembles his father, the famous artist Yaacov Agam. "We all spoke Hebrew at home," he explains, adding that his brother and sister were born in Israel; his mother died some 30 years ago. He says his photographs from 9/11 have been included in various books and exhibitions, and adds that relatives of the victims, firemen and policemen came to see his show "This is New York City," which opened in a Soho gallery not long after that attack. Recently Agam donated his collection of photos from that day to a memorial museum that will be set up at Ground Zero.
He remembers snapping pictures nonstop. "I expected to see a great number of bodies," he says, "but saw only three or four - evidence that most of the people had been burned or were buried with the towers. From time to time, policemen and firemen could be seen coming out of the dust. It was very surrealistic. They looked to me like cowboys. Their faces were filled with pain and desperation. There was fire everywhere; a terrible stench filled the air. Everyone was afraid there would be another explosion ... In the beginning, the estimates were that between 10,000 and 15,000 people had been killed."
Agam remembers that an alarm was sounded and people were requested to evacuate the area of the Twin Towers because another building - 7 World Center - had begun crumbling.
"Everyone left the area," he continues. "There was terrible chaos. The policemen warned that they had no idea what was happening inside the building. There was a fear that perhaps the terrorists had hidden chemical or nuclear materials inside the planes and that everything could explode."
Altogether Agam spent some eight hours at the scene, without food or drink: "I felt weak. I had no strength from a physical or from an emotional point of view. At a certain stage, the firemen broke into a grocery store. People were hungry and there was no food ... A policeman gave me a bottle of Coca Cola to drink."
With his film running out and evening approaching, Agam decided to leave the area. His film had run out and the his digital camera's memory chip was small, he recalls, and thus limited the amount of photos he could shoot. "I ran to the offices of Getty [Images]. They took the digital pictures, but they did not want the film. There was no time to develop the pictures. For me that was the moment when I understood that the analog age in photography had ended and the digital age was taking over by force."
During the time he spent at what was later to become known as Ground Zero, Agam took some 1,200 pictures. "Every photographer has his own perspective. I felt I was a witness to one of the most important events in history, from the point of view of the impact of the pictures. I didn't photograph people jumping from the buildings because I arrived at the scene relatively late. But I captured the destruction during the first few hours after the buildings collapsed - the intensity ... Perhaps this sounds like a cliche, but I saw bravery with my own eyes. I saw the firemen and the policemen going in and coming back with the bodies, continuing to work without stopping to save people while they were endangering their own lives. There were other photographers who took more graphic images. But I was looking for something else. For example, when you looked at the rescue forces, it was possible to see the sorrow and the pain on their faces. I think I caught that in my shots."
"New York changed after the attack," he continues. "From a fairly alienated city, it became one big commune. It was possible to feel that people cared for one another. People came out of their shells. There was a general psychosis, a fear, in the city, that there would soon be another attack, an even bigger one."
Ron Agam was born in Paris and lived there until the age of 19. He then moved to the United States, where he studied economics in Chicago. However, at a certain stage switched over to photography. "I actually began taking photographs from the age of six," he recalls. "I always loved it. I thought I had talent as a photographer but I didn't believe anyone would want to buy my pictures."
His first commercial exhibition was held in New York when he was 35, and it focused on the lives of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Parallel to that, he shot portraits of various figures and he notes that one of his most famous works was a study of banker-tycoon Edmond Safra.
He most recently has begun to train his camera on flowers, which he shoots from close up; he then blows up the images to make prints that are two square meters in size. Agam exhibited an impressive series of floral photos at the beginning of the year at the Tyler Rollins Fine Art Gallery in Chelsea.
"Taking the flower pictures was like doing the work of a detective," he explains. "I went to flower markets that opened at three o'clock in the morning. My aim was to find the most impressive varieties. I got to know a whole new world."
What is happening these days with your father?
Agam: "My father is still living in Paris. He visits Israel very often. He is continuing to create. At present he is working on several large projects in different parts of the world, among others, in the United States and Taiwan."
There is a feeling that your father is not appreciated as much in Israel as he is abroad.
"I think he is appreciated and his works can be found in various places in Israel. There is also a plan to build a museum with his work in Rishon Letzion. The problem is the cultural policy of various official institutions in Israel. For example, the water fountain on Dizengoff Street in Tel Aviv: That is a work that was donated to the city, but today there is not even minimal upkeep of it, even though there is a contract that obliges the municipality to take care of its maintenance. There is no respect for art. The lack of attention paid to the fountain [and other works] is a way of burying the art and the artists. My father donated artwork and expects that it will be taken care of in proper fashion. Why can the Paris municipality do things properly in this respect, but the Tel Aviv municipality cannot? When donors come to Israel and see how works of art are maintained, they have no more reason to make donations. If Tel Aviv were to take proper care of works of art, it would encourage donors to make more contributions."
Agam also has had some involvement in more political matters in recent years. Together with two of his friends - writer Mark Halter and philosopher Bernard Henri Levy - he was active in the campaign against the appointment of the Egyptian culture minister to the position of president of UNESCO. "I couldn't understand how it was possible that a person who wanted to burn Israeli books could be appointed to the position of head of the most important cultural organization in the world," he says.