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The presence and absence of the Twin Towers, in photos

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The history of the World Trade Center captured in photographs spanning 30 years

Photographer Brian Rose is no stranger to chronicling New York City life. He’s already authored photo books on the transformation of the Lower East Side and the Meatpacking District, but the subject of his latest book wasn’t something that he had planned on. WTC, his latest effort, is a photographic history (of sorts) of the World Trade Center complex, particularly the Twin Towers, and the evolution of the site in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Rose moved to New York City in 1977 to study photography at Cooper Union. At that time he began documenting the street scene in areas like the Village, Tribeca, and Soho, and in the early 1980s, he was awarded grants to photograph the Financial District and the Lower East Side—but at the time, the Twin Towers however were not something Rose was focusing on.

"I had no intention of shooting the Twin Towers, but they so dominated the skyline that you couldn’t not have them in the photos," he told Curbed. "The city was at a low point so it felt like we had a free reign of Lower Manhattan," he added, referring to the fact that he was able to shoot from the then-abandoned West Side Highway. Another favorite vantage point for Rose to capture photos was from the Staten Island Ferry.

On 9/11, Rose was in Amsterdam. He had been living there for several years, but as soon as he heard the news, there was something that pulled him back to the city. He was on one of the first flights that were allowed to land in the city post the attacks, and he immediately tried to get back to the site he had been documenting nearly 20 years earlier. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks he focused on the memorials set up for the victims of the attacks, like the one in Union Square.

In subsequent years, the World Trade Center site kept pulling him back. It’s where he’d gotten his start, and the site was part of his evolution as a photographer, so he was keen capturing how the area would rebuild itself.

"We didn’t fully appreciate the symbolism of the towers," Rose says. "People from outside often saw them as iconic towers that represented New York and the power of the city and the country. The terrorists who destroyed the towers were well aware of that. When the towers were destroyed we lost our bearings, and the city has been a different place since then."

It wasn’t until about five or six years ago as Rose was browsing through his archives that he realized he had a book on his hands. He had unintentionally captured more than 30 years of history, albeit with a 20-year break in between, but there was "an untold story of how much the city had grown and prospered in those years," as he put it. A neighborhood once devoid of residents was now packed with development, but it was the anchoring presence of the World Trade Center that really pushed him to put the book together.

"The Twin Towers are present for a lot of this book, but their absence is a part of this story as well," Rose texplains. "This is the story of New York—from the ’70s to the present, and how Lower Manhattan has gentrified and how our relationship with the skyline has changed as well."

While reflecting on Rose’s third book, Sean Corcoran, the curator of prints and photographs at the Museum of the City of New York, had this to say:

Serving as a form of personal catharsis, Rose’s words and pictures reflect on the nature of tragedy, remembrance and resilience. He never obtained special access to photograph from particular vantage points, but rather he stood amongst New Yorkers and captured views from the sidewalks they tread every day. The resulting collection of images reflects a collective experience, and in many ways so do his words.

Rose’s book launch will aptly take place at the Great Hall at Cooper Union on September 8. To Rose, what sets the book apart from the dozens of others on the subject is the timeline, and the fact it is equal parts history and personal narrative. It is his tribute to all New Yorkers.

"I’m not a nostalgic person and as a photographer, I try to be even handed," he told Curbed. "I want other people to find their way in my photos, and to find their own conclusions. I don’t think my photos are just about the past, they are about the continuity of history, and about the way things change and also stay the same."

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