I was in my father's studio just a few blocks from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, when my world and the world we live in changed forever. Within hours of the plane hitting Tower 1, news anchors began a refrain: "You'll remember where you were on 9/11, the way people remember where they were the day Kennedy was shot."
Countless times I had heard people tell my father where they were when JFK died, their recollections an expression of how deeply they had been affected by their president's death. Four decades later, two tragic moments in American history intersected for me in a very personal way. Deep within the rubble of what used to be the World Trade Center sat a safe filled with more than forty thousand negatives of President John F. Kennedy and his family. Those slips of film were my father's life work, each one a reminder of an era when, as my father often said, "people still believed in something."
There are no words to describe how attached my father was to his Kennedy negatives. They defined who he was as a person and as a photographer. When he moved to Europe in 1968, he purchased an extra plane ticket so they could sit at his side while traveling. Later, back in New York again to set up his studio, he tried to have them insured, but no insurance company dared. Those images were priceless, their value beyond calculation. So he stored them in a fireproof bank vault in the World Trade Center.
I went with him on countless occasions to the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank vault to retrieve or return negatives. There was always an air of solemnity in the room when he reached for one of the many manila envelopes as though what we were about to see and touch would bring us closer to something historic. Back out on the street, walking up West Broadway, he clutched his treasure trove until it was safe and sound in his studio.
In his cautiousness, however, he could not have foreseen 9/11. And not even that fortified safe tucked in a vault could protect his work from the inferno that raged within the World Trade Center. Although 5 World Trade Center still stood when the blaze was extinguished, it was condemned to demolition, the safe irretrievable. I campaigned for the rubble to be sifted; months passed and I waited. Then, early in February 2002, the bank called. "Your safe has been found."
I went to claim it, clinging to the hope that some contents-anything-might have been rescued. To my surprise and horror, what I found was a safe, surrealistically intact, with its door open and a symmetrical hole where the lock had been. I peered in. It was empty.
America lost its innocence with the assassination of President Kennedy, tragically followed by the deaths of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Amid that turmoil, my father lost his belief in the United States, which had welcomed him with open arms after his escape from Nazi Germany. The sadness and disappointment that followed the deaths of his heroes prompted him to return to Europe in 1968. Still, my father gained comfort from a belief that his Kennedy archives would serve as a reminder to Americans of their wonderful potential.
In May 2001, I lost my father. Following his death, I pledged to uphold his legacy by sharing with others the wonder of his work and the story it tells of a president we loved because, in my father's words, "he empowered each one of us to believe we could make a difference." Although my father's collection of more than forty thousand negatives has been destroyed, all is not lost. Many of his choice prints remain, as well as all the contact sheets. With the help of modern technology, we have been able to retrieve the images in this book, many of them published here for the first time. We have done this, in part, as a tribute to my father. We have also done it as a tribute to a proud and hopeful chapter in our history.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomasina Lowe