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The Ascent of the Falling Man: Establishing a Picture's Iconicity

  • ROB KROES (a1), MILES ORVELL (a2) and ALAN NADEL (a3)

Why is it that some photographs have a power of epic concentration, condensing larger moments in history into one iconic image? This piece about the photography of 9/11 addresses this question. Its focus is on one photograph in particular, Richard Drew's image of the Falling Man. Central to the argument is the awareness of a paradox: to explore something quintessentially photographic – the force of images that give them iconic power – using a medium for reflection and communication that is inherently non-photographic: i.e. language. The author aims at accounting for the fascination of Drew's image, in a struggle to find words to describe its impact. To that end he looks at how others – the photographer himself, and other creative minds, in essay form, fiction or graphic novels – have translated their fascination into language that may help us account for the way this image continues to haunt us.

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1 Albert Boime, “The Fate of the Image-Monument in the Wake of 9/11,” in Vincent Lavoie, ed., NOW: Images of Present Time (Montreal: Le Mois de la Photo à Montréal, 2003), 189–204.

2 Alain Mons, La traversée du visible: Images et lieux du contemporain (Paris: Les Editions de la Passion, 2002), 32 (my translation).

3 Ibid., 30.

4 In a piece tellingly titled “Still Life,” Laura Frost addresses the issue of, as her subtitle has it, “9/11's Falling Bodies.” She recognizes photography's inherent power to make time stand still, a power that inspired Polish poet Wislawa Szymrska. Laura Frost, “Still Life: 9/11's Falling Bodies,” in Ann Keniston and Jeanne Follansbee Quinn, eds., Literature after 9/11 (London: Routledge, 2008) 180–207.

5 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Illuminations (New York: Schocken, 1969), 236–37.

6 Don DeLillo, Falling Man (New York: Scribner, 2007), 168.

7 Ibid., 221–22.

8 The firefighter is shown in the documentary film 9/11, produced by Jules and Gédéon Naudet, two French documentary filmmakers who happened to be in New York making a film about one rookie firefighter who underwent his fire baptism on the day of 9/11. The film contains gripping footage from inside one of the burning towers, but likewise makes a stated conscious choice not to show the falling bodies. Instead, one hears the thud of their hitting ground. 9/11, A Film by Jules and Gédéon Naudet and James Hanlon (Goldfish Pictures Inc., 2001).

9 Ric Burns, New York: The Center of the World, A Documentary Film (Boston: WGBH, 2003) Episode Eight: 1946–2003.

10 Junod, Tom, “The Falling Man,” Esquire, 140, 3 (Sept. 2003), 177–78.

11 See,0,2008868.story?coll=sns-ap-nationworld-headlines.

12 Junod.

13 9/11: The Falling Man (directed by Henry Singer, filmed by Richard Nemeroff, using Lyle Owerko's photographs of falling people. First aired on British television network Channel 4, 2006). The film is available on two websites: and

14 Words quoted from the documentary 9/11: The Falling Man. The theme of the ethnic response to 9/11 photographs, and to the Falling Man in particular, I have explored more fully in my “Indecent Exposure: Picturing the Horror of 9/11,” in Derek Rubin and Jaap Verheul, eds., American Multiculturalism after 9/11: Transatlantic Perspectives (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2009), 67–81.

15 One site in particular devotes itself to the memory of those perished on 9/11:

16 Jonathan Safran Foer, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2005).

17 Zuber, Devin, “Flanerie at Ground Zero: Aesthetic Countermemories in Lower Manhattan,” American Quarterly, 58, 2 (2006), 269–99.

18 Art Spiegelman, In the Shadow of No Towers (New York: Pantheon Books, 2004).

19 Postmemory is a term suggested by Marianne Hirsch in her Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997). It describes the sort of memory that people form of past events they have not directly witnessed.

20 Kristiaan Versluys, “9/11 in the Novel,” in Matthew J. Morgan, ed., The Impact of 9/11 on the Media, Arts, and Entertainment: The Day that Changed Everything? (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) 142–43.

This piece has evolved from passages in my Photographic Memories: Private Pictures, Public Images, and American History (Dartmouth: University Press of New England, 2007). Ever since I have been trying to translate into language my continuing fascination with one particular image among the flood of visual material produced by 9/11. The piece has benefited greatly from critical comments by colleagues and friends, in particular Geoffrey Batchen, Kate Delaney, Mick Gidley, Jay Prosser, Derek Rubin, Robert Rydell and Jaap Verheul.

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Journal of American Studies
  • ISSN: 0021-8758
  • EISSN: 1469-5154
  • URL: /core/journals/journal-of-american-studies
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