Reviews of Jonathan C. Hyman’s work by Curators and Scholars

Shannon Perich – Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

Edward T. Linenthal – Professor of History and Editor, Journal of American History

Jeffrey Alexander – Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology
Co-Director, Center for Cultural Sociology Yale University 

Charles Brock – Assistant CuratorAmerican and British Paintings
National Gallery of Art

Angus Gillespie – Professor Rutgers University Department of American Studies

Shannon Perich

How fortunate we are to have Jonathan Hyman with his vision, persistence and stamina to photograph and record the ephemeral, private, and personal responses to the September 11, 2001 attacks. His large body of works encapsulates the palpable reactions to this history-changing event.

As future historians, social scientists, and art historians look back to visualize the much written about American response to the September 11th attacks, they will turn to look at Hyman’s body of work in much the same way we now view Alexander Gardner’s portfolio of Civil War photography. Within his body of photographs one can clearly see the wounded and angry, yet proud and patriotic, voices of individuals, gatherings and communities. As a photo historian, I have not seen a body of work focusing on the private responses to a national event on the scale in which Hyman has worked. The FSA photographers’ work, whose photographs captured the devastating effects of drought and depression, is the only body of work that I can begin to relate his work to, and their project was executed by a team of photographers on government assignments. There are bodies of work that document the varied American responses to Vietnam, other wars, and national issues, but none with the same focus on the intersection between national tragedy, personal experience and public expression. Like Gardner’s work, Hyman’s is a rare and historically important group of materials that will sit as a central point of departure for September 11th imagery and the understanding of our era.

In addition to the work’s subject matter being compelling and historic, the quality of the work is outstanding. Hyman is able to document the subject’s point of view without interjecting his own politics or feelings. He uses his artistic training and sensibility to skillfully and eloquently document a broad range of emotional and personal subjects with sincerity. Hyman creates an artistic image while always allowing for the subject’s primacy. This work, worthy of exhibition and publication, will serve both scholars and the general public well. Hyman’s collection offers insight and understanding into the powerful and meaningful expressions made by those who are grappling, dealing, and surviving with the tragedy of the September 11th attacks.
There has been no event like September 11th in our history. There has been no other time in which the American public manifested so many visceral displays of emotion. Photography is the only way to document the shear volume of it. It would not be possible to physically collect the materials that Hyman has photographed. One can only collect the tattoos through photography. There are, too, many individual memorials; the headstones are sacred; the murals huge and, made specifically for the place in which they were created. The only way to insist that future scholars and citizens be able to see the breadth and depth of the American vernacular response to September 11th is through photography, beginning with Jonathan Hyman’s work.

Shannon Perich
Curator, Division of Culture and the Arts
Smithsonian National Museum of American History

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Edward T. Linenthal

I am delighted to write in enthusiastic support of photographer Jonathan Hyman, whose incomparable and very important photographic collection will make the institution which houses his 9/11 documentary archive an important player in the study of post-9/11 American culture. Truly, his work presents a rich and unique American memorial vocabulary responding to a transformative national event.

I first met Jonathan nine years ago when the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia asked me to write brief panel text for their exhibition featuring his work in a solo exhibition titled, “9/11: A Nation Remembers.” I traveled to Philadelphia to work with Jonathan and the curators, and I was stunned by what I saw. I have spent the past twenty-five years writing about American memories of battlefields, museum exhibitions, the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing, and I am now serving as a member of the Flight 93 Federal Advisory Commission. I have never, however, seen a more stunning visual record of a national response to catastrophe than Hyman’s. The story of his energies over a period of years is compelling in itself. However, I was even more impressed with the thoughtfulness of Hyman’s interpretive labors regarding the cultural meanings of his collection. By cataloguing and exhibiting his materials and photographs, a collecting institution could offer scholars, visitors, and students a most creative and unusual voice in helping them think about how the arts contribute to our cultural memories of events such as 9/11. Jonathan’s collection also offers a very different perspective, that of someone who has done the physical work that allowed him to practice his craft and present the insights of his interpretive labors.

After meeting Jonathan and viewing portions of his collection, I immediately asked him to write a four thousand word essay on his collection—including visual material of course—to be included in a special project of the Journal of American History, “American Faces: Photography in the 20th Century.” (We have stretched the boundary of the century because of his essay!) He has written an essay characterized by one of our readers as the best essay in the project. This appeared in the June 2007 issue of the JAH. Jonathan was also one of the keynote speakers at our Department of History’s graduate student conference in March, 2007. As a follow up to this, Jonathan and I, along with University of Michigan professor, Christiane Gruber, co-edited a book for the University of Texas Press titled, The Landscapes of 9/11: A Photographer’s Journey. This hybrid book features 100 of Jonathan’s photographs and essays by well-known scholars and curators.

In my opinion, Hyman’s collection will become even more useful over time as we gain more and more distance from the events of 9/11. He has shown through his photography his interpretive skills, writing, and lecturing, that he will continue to make original contributions to scholars, students, the art world, and the wider public through disciplined reflection on his collection. The overwhelmingly positive response to his exhibition in Philadelphia and similar exhibitions at Duke University and the National September 11 Museum in New York are indicative of the need for the voices of scholars, artists, and those like Jonathan Hyman who creatively straddle these boundaries, to continue to help us understand the various cultural functions of memorialization.

Jonathan Hyman is an unusual talent who has assembled an invaluable, unique and transcendent collection.

Edward T. Linenthal
Professor of History and
Editor, Journal of American History

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Jeffrey Alexander

As our understanding of the impact of the Holocaust on human history has grown, humanists and social scientists have incorporated the idea of “social trauma” into their disciplinary vocabularies. For more than a decade, some of my colleagues and I have been engaged in developing a cultural-sociological approach. Our studies have shown a surprising thing: It is not only the direct experience of victims that determines the importance of a traumatic event, but the way society processes the event in the days, months, and years after it occurred. It is the psychological identification and cultural extension of the trauma experience that is significant.

Jonathan Hyman’s photographic documentaries demonstrate this post-event process in startling and vivid detail. They show how Americans in all walks of life, in every class, race, and ethnic group reacted to 9/11 and made it their own. Hyman’s work also demonstrates, in this context, the specific power of the plastic arts, how trauma experience is incorporated through shapes and forms and not through words. Art, both creation and consumption, is at the core of the meaning-making process.

Hyman’s collection will be invaluable as historical material on many levels, across a wide segment of the arts and social sciences. That said, I also believe it is very important to explore what his photographs say to us now. They will help us, as a nation, to process our continuing encounters with violence and death, linking us to our earlier working-through of collective trauma to our particular situation today. It is vital to expose his collection through exhibition, publication, and documentaries across the country in order that all Americans see his work. I have begun this process myself by inviting Mr. Hyman to speak and present at Yale’s Center for Cultural Sociology in September of 2006, on the five year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

This is a magnificent body of photographic ethnography that marks a major construction of the nation’s collective memory. It will be looked at, and remembered, for decades if not centuries to come.

Jeffrey Alexander
Lillian Chavenson Saden Professor of Sociology
Co-Director, Center for Cultural Sociology
Yale University
203-436-4354 or 203-436-9855

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Charles Brock

I am interested in what the photographs and the objects portrayed in Jonathan Hyman’s photographs suggest about the relationship between art of the street and the art of the museum. Modern American culture has in large part been defined by the dialogue between a canonical mainstream and what has, if labeled at all, been called variously outsider, folk, or visionary art. Indeed a traditional role of museums has been to define for a general public exactly what is most representative of their culture; they seek to circumscribe and preserve a collective cultural memory. While successful on many counts one of the problems with such a model is that it often isolates the ends of the artistic process — summary, synthetical works — from their true sources which are often found in vernacular expressions. To use an organic metaphor, in a museum you often see just the bloom, but not the stem and roots, with the result that palpable connections between life and art are sometimes obscured or lost

It has often been argued by cultural critics such as Siegfried Kracauer that the most compelling and salient characteristic of film is its capacity to capture the real. In this capacity film’s status as art is problematic; film’s role is instead seen primarily as an intermediary between direct experience and artistic creation. Regarding the works people created in the aftermath of the September 11th attacks and Hyman’s photographs of them, I would argue that they are both part of an organic process that is leading to the more permanent and monumental forms which will eventually be found in the art of the museum. The works and Hyman’s pictures represent the early stages of a cultural dialogue, the evidence of which, because of its inherently ephemeral nature, would have been largely lost and obscured if not for his efforts. His collection serves an important documentary role by preserving objects, events, and gestures, and, as such, it is an invaluable resource in understanding the infinite complexity of the ways in which the experience of tragedy and loss is memorialized in art.

In conjunction with their function as historic documents, these photographs also display Hyman’s own considerable skills as an artist and should be considered as works of art in their own right. Hyman was clearly transfixed by the breadth and magnitude of what he saw taking place around him. I wrote an essay for Jonathan Hyman’s 2013 book, “The Landscapes of 9/1: A Photographer’s Journey,” and in it, I make relevant comparisons between his work and that of the great American photographers, Berenice Abbot and Robert Frank because of the elegant way he has made conceptual sense out of the fallout and disorder following the 9/11 attacks. His photographs, carefully composed and vividly realized, constitute a unique monument about monuments, a profound memorial for which there are few precedents.

Charles Brock
Assistant Curator
American and British Paintings
National Gallery of Art

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Angus Gillespie

I have served as a scholar of the folk arts and as the director of the New Jersey Folk Festival at Rutgers University for more than thirty years. As the author of several books and numerous articles, I feel well qualified to comment upon the value of the work of New York photographer Jonathan Hyman. I have long been an advocate of the discovery, study, documentation, preservation, and exhibition of folk art. I have, over the years since 9/11 invited Mr. Hyman to address my classes at Rutgers or a conference I have hosted. Our American Studies department featured his work in a University sponsored lecture at the E.J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy in the fall of 2006.

We remember that in the immediate aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001, there was a widespread, spontaneous artistic expression of mourning, of anger, and of patriotism among the American people. These expressions took many forms, including spontaneous shrines, roadside memorials, and large-scale urban murals. In the months immediately following the attacks, Jonathan Hyman took the initiative to travel the east coast and parts of the Mid-west, documenting the wide variety of grassroots, artistic ways that Americans expressed their sorrow. Hyman, as an independent photographer embarked on this project on his own time and at his own expense. There was no time to seek government approval or to apply for foundation grants. Realizing that this was ephemeral art, there was no time to lose.

The artwork captured by Jonathan Hyman defies ready categorization. In his 20,000 photographs we find images in every imaginable place and context. People transformed their homes, businesses, parks, the roofs and sides of barns and buildings, motor vehicles, and even their bodies into public memorials and places for art and expression. These images, or offerings, which depict a hurt and stunned citizenry, were left in all types of places, including the fields of Pennsylvania, the streets of New York City and Washington D.C., and rural upstate New York. For the most part, this art was produced by self-taught artists without formal training.

The ten year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks has passed with Mr. Hyman’s work having been featured in two national solo museum exhibitions, several publications and large solo gallery exhibits, one in New York City and the other at Duke University. As we move forward as a society and a people who are just beginning to understand what the attacks mean to us, Hyman’s work is not only more relevant and poignant than ever, but will become a focal point for those in the heartland of our country, Europe, and beyond to understand the trauma that these events brought to our nation.

I predict that, in the years to come, the artistic and intellectual community will come to see Jonathan Hyman as the key photographer of the War on Terror, just as we now recognize Matthew Brady in terms of the Civil War. Hyman has done his part in the timely discovery and documentation of these important artistic expressions. His ongoing project resulted in a major and important collection. There is nothing else like it. In the years ahead, his work will be celebrated by educators, historians, writers, collectors, dealers, curators, museums, libraries, and art enthusiasts from across the United States and around the world.
Angus Kress Gillespie, Professor
Rutgers University Department of American Studies

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