Henry Leutwyler: Sacred Dust

  • September 22, 2021
Warped red metal fragment of lock box panel from floor warden emergency telephone.
Fragment of lock box panel from floor warden emergency phone.

A  metal fragment from the fuselage of hijacked Fight 175. The distressed soles of a pair of uniform boots worn by a PAPD sergeant rescued from the World Trade Center rubble. A fractured hairbrush with a decorative handle. A stairwell sprinkler head. A single Tupperware lid, missing its container. Heat-fused scraps of office carpeting. Some of these relics are easily identified on first glance. Others require further explanation and repeated close scrutiny, bearing no resemblance to the material universe they once occupied. All were transformed by their encounter with the events of that fateful Tuesday morning 20 years ago.

A survey of recovered items housed in the Museum’s two off-site storage facilities was made this past spring with veteran photographer Henry Leutwyler, commissioned by National Geographic Magazine to create a special anniversary feature essay for its September issue. In collaboration with the Museum’s curatorial and collections management team, and with painstaking care, he explored a large sampling of our collection of remnants salvaged from Ground Zero and elsewhere in lower Manhattan. The resulting photographs were then culled and chosen for the series he titled  "Sacred Dust."

Thirty of these powerful yet tender images form the basis of the current commemorative exhibition - also entitled "Sacred Dust" - at the Foley Gallery on Orchard Street. For the shoot, Leutwyler set each of the items against a neutral background, letting them speak for themselves and provoke their own intimate meditations. Each stirs a telling, often poignant piece of the bigger 9/11 story.

Writing in the essay that accompanies Leutwyler's National Geographic portfolio, journalist Patricia Edmonds observes, "Memorials have replaced some scars left by the attackers, but items pulled from the rubble reveal intimate accounts of bravery, loss, and perseverance."  

The Museum’s Chief Curator, Dr. Jan S. Ramirez, reflects that working on this project with Leutwyler sparked new insights about the profound human impacts of the attacks, and the dedication of countless responders and investigators committed to restoring tangible evidence for survivors and the bereaved.

At the close of the exhibition, the prints it features will be donated to the Museum. 

"Sacred Dust" is on view at the Foley Gallery - 59 Orchard Street - through Sunday, September 26.   

By 9/11 Memorial Staff

  • Charred, broken hair brush
  • Charred, unspooled camera film strip
  • Charred remnants of a book of maps of New York's five boroughs

L-R: Hairbrush recovered by FDNY from the World Trade Center site; uncoiled film strip excavated by forensic archaeologists from the Office of the Medical Examiner; scorched, spiral-bound map of the city's five boroughs, recovered from an FDNY ambulance destroyed in the attacks.

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