At Milk Gallery in New York’s Meatpacking District, the activity this time of year usually centers on Fashion Week. Yet enter the main gallery and you’ll see dozens of stark, emotional portraits that are the very opposite of haute couture. There are firemen and soldiers; politicians and survivors. Some were household names even before 8:46 am on September 11, 2001, that fateful moment when a plane struck the north tower of the World Trade Center; many more would become known beginning that very minute as they shaped that day and the decade to come.
At a Sept. 8 ceremony to launch the exhibition of these photographs, TIME managing editor Rick Stengel said that the images, part of TIME’s Beyond 9/11: Portraits of Resilience project, were a classic art form, all shot in black and white by the renowned photographer Marco Grob. Each image tells a different story. There are the three Riches brothers, all New York City firefighters, who lost a fourth brother, Jimmy, on 9/11. Their father Jim, a retired deputy fire chief, worked for months after the attacks to help clear the rubble. He found his son’s body, and for that, he counts himself as “one of the lucky ones.”
Former Vice President Dick Cheney appears, thinner and slighter but uncompromising. Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani stands with arms crossed, the confidence he projected on that day leaping from the frame. Admiral William McRaven, now head of the U.S. Special Operations Command — the group who tracked down and killed Osama bin Laden — stares out with a piercing glare from a half shadow.
After attendees had a chance to view the portraits, the lights were dimmed for the debut of the TIME/HBO documentary of the project, that will be shown on HBO and at branches of the New York Public Library starting Sept. 11. It’s a film of remarkable stories, including that of Muslim activist Daisy Kahn, who was in Colorado with her husband, Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, head of a mosque just blocks from Ground Zero, when the planes struck. “They attacked my home, my neighborhood,” Kahn says in the film, “and I wasn’t even there.”
Two men who were there: Brian Clark, who worked on the 84th floor of the south tower, and Stanley Praimnath, who worked on the 81st floor. In the chaos after the second plane hit, the two men found themselves on opposite sides of a wall. There was an opening in the wall near the ceiling, and Clark implored Praimnath to think of his children and somehow leap to the top. Praimnath made the jump and Clark helped haul him over the other side to safety. They crashed to the floor and the two men helped each other from the burning towers, becoming, as they say, brothers for the rest of their lives.
“September 11 is about as complicated a day as anything that’s going to happen,” Giuliani said in a Q&A with Stengel following the screening. “It was the worst day in the history of our city; maybe the worst day in the history of our country. On the other hand, it was the best day. Many people stepped forward in incredible acts of bravery, and people died heroes to save others’ lives. The United States was unified.”
Giuliani told some of the unknown stories about the days after 9/11, many of which were far funnier than expected. When George W. Bush first visited the city on Sept. 14, Mayor Giuliani, then-Governor George Pataki and the heads of the city’s emergency services rode with the President on the solemn drive away from Ground Zero. President Bush broke the ice by asking Fire Commissioner Tom Von Essen how he was doing. “I’m doing better now,” Von Essen answered. “My wife finally came home last night and I got lucky.” President Bush replied, “Well, you’re probably the only guy that did.”
Stengel didn’t waste the opportunity to ask Giuliani, who ran for the Republican Presidential nomination four years ago, whether today’s polarized Republican party is one where the former mayor would still belong. Giuliani said that he wished Ronald Reagan could have been at Tuesday’s Republican presidential debate, which took place at the Reagan Presidential Library. “I feel comfortable as a Republican because I get to define it the way I want to define it,” Giuliani said. “I consider myself to be financially and economically conservative, but I’m a social moderate. That makes me difficult to get nominated in the Republican Party.”
Outside the Milk Gallery, a quick glance downtown revealed the Tribute in Light memorial to the 9/11 victims, twin beams that shine heavenward where the towers used to stand. This year they climb next to the still-rising Freedom Tower, a modern monument to the resiliency of Americans in the face of the tragedy that shaped the past decade. Beginning Sept. 17, the story of that determination will be on display at the Milk Gallery, in the form of Marco Grob’s moving photographs.