At 7 feet tall, the free-standing photos in the Skirball’s “Faces of Ground Zero: A Tribute to America’s Heroes” showliterally loom larger than life. Grizzled firefighter Louie Cacchioli, who dodged hellish traps before leading 50 people down 23 floors, cradles his helmet like an infant. Window washer Jan Demczur, wearing a meek expression, holds the squeegee he used to pry open an elevator and bash through a wall. Joanne Gross, her eyes bewildered, clutches her brother Tommy’s firefighter and cowboy hats. Next to her stands a photo of her other firefighter brother, Danny, who searched the rubble 24 hours a day until he found Tommy’s body.
Joe McNally, the former Life magazine photographer behind "Faces," was often grateful for the darkness in the studio. "I could shrink behind the lens so people couldn’t see I was a mess," he says.
McNally, 49, conceived "Faces" as headlines described the rescuers’ deeds as giant in stature. He thought of the huge Polaroid camera — nicknamed Moby and large as a whale — he’d once used in a studio near Ground Zero.
He promptly camped out in the studio, sleeping there for three weeks and spreading the word that survivors and rescuers were welcome any time of the day or night. Soon they began arriving in droves, wearing the clothes they’d worn on Sept. 11 and posing in front of the lens that had been taken from an old U-2 spy plane.
The pristine images, which emerged in 90 seconds, include a bone-tired paramedic and two stalwart-looking firefighters, McNally’s favorite. "These guys depict a uniquely American durability," he says. "They sum-up a theme of the show: that even after Sept. 11, we’re still here."
For his part, Uri D. Herscher, the Skirball’s president and CEO, has extended museum hours to honor the acclaimed exhibit, one of three inspired by the attacks to arrive in Los Angeles this summer. "Jewish tradition states, ‘To save one life is as if you have saved the world,’" he says. "These heroes saved many."
For information about the show and related events, call (310) 440-4500.