George Forss Made Magical Photos of the Towers Before 9/11

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“George took this picture in 1998,” Phyllis Wrynn, the longtime friend and gallerist of George Forss who passed away last month at age of 80, remembers. At the time, he was standing in the offices of Woolworth Building, with a clear view of the Twin Towers. “The first time I saw it, I loved it because I had never seen the Towers from that vantage point before,” Wrynn explains. “They were so enormous, but this image makes them human scale. I can imagine building a Lego version of the Towers…and that it would look as they do in this image.” 

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Three years after Forss created The Towers Stand Alone, the towers, 1 World Trade Center and 2 World Trade Center, collapsed after being hit by two planes hijacked by terrorists. An estimated 2,753 people were killed. Wrynn was in New York at the time; she and her husband watched the coverage on TV. The next Saturday, they made the pilgrimage to Union Square to mourn with their city. 

“Afterwards, when I glimpsed George’s photograph, I had a visceral reaction every time,” the gallerist admits. “I just wanted the Towers to be back where they had been. It flooded me with sadness for a very long time. I cried a lot.” Still, she kept the print on prominent display at Park Slope Gallery, the gallery she owns with her husband. Even when it hurt, she says she “had to keep looking at it.” 

The Towers Stand Alone is still hanging there today, in the place she and George left it all those years ago. “Now, I am back to very much loving the photograph again,” Wrynn tells me. “And, we had a postcard printed of it, so I can hold them in my hands. That’s my favorite.” 

George Forss, who got his start in the 1980s as a sidewalk vendor, selling photos to tourists, has since become a mythologized, larger-than-life figure in the history of photography. But Wrynn knew the man behind the legend, and she was there when he first made his iconic images of the city, many featuring the Twin Towers. They worked together on The Access Project, a love letter to New York, as seen from rare perspectives and hard-to-reach locations. 

On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, we asked Wrynn to share her memories of the city, the Towers, and the photographer who captured it all in luminous blacks, whites, and shades of gray. 

From Prospect Park West The Slope & the City, 1998 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: How did you first learn about George Forss? 

Phyllis Wrynn: I am the director and owner of an art gallery in Brooklyn, NY. My husband and I work together. We are in our 38th year. We also offer custom archival framing services. One of our clients brought us several extraordinary black and white silver gelatin prints of New York City subjects. I was blown away. I asked the client if the prices were in the realm of the possible to afford. I had no idea. The photographer wasn’t someone I was aware of. 

When he gave me the price range, it sounded very fair. I said that I would be interested in seeing more, so the next time George was in the neighborhood, we made a plan to meet here at the gallery. He also brought more work, and again, I was amazed. He was delighted at our reaction. He needed some framing of some larger prints. He had done his own matting and mounting of the small prints that he sold at his set-ups on midtown streets–all with awful materials in the early days. He couldn’t afford custom good quality framing. We agreed to trade. That’s how it started.

Triple Exposure NYC, 1995 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: Were there any formative moments in George’s childhood that you think influenced his vision and his work?  

Phyllis Wrynn: George grew up in a very poor and dysfunctional family. He had polio. George actually told me that there weren’t enough beds for all of the kids, so they would have to take turns sleeping. His mother was very eccentric…quirky. Some good qualities, to be sure, but she was also neglectful, and the kids ended up in orphanages for years of their growing up. It’s a very Dickensian story.  

So, George didn’t know anything other than the isolated environments he experienced…and none were nurturing. But one of his mother’s strengths was that she had an interest in photography. In times when George was bedridden, he became quite fascinated with cameras, so that was his introduction. He didn’t start shooting on a regular basis until the 1970s, as a grown man. Several of his most famous images are from 1977.   

Without any training, he had an impeccable eye. He intuitively understood composition. He had a very meager education and was self-conscious about the vestiges of polio that he had for his entire life. But put a camera in his hands, and he was transformed. He loved the city, the juxtapositions, the energy. 

Plaza Street Panorama, 1993 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: In what ways do you think George’s early experiences shaped his approach to photography? 

Phyllis Wrynn: George was not the kind of person who would ever enjoy working for someone else. He became a messenger and rode around delivering and picking up packages in Manhattan. He saw lots of people selling from tables and carts: food, gloves, books, etc. He started to think that if he could do that–have some kind of independent business–he’d be free. He started taking pictures and got more proficient using a small darkroom that he had constructed in his bathroom. He got a great reaction and loved the interaction.  

One day, the famous photographer David Douglas Duncan passed George’s set-up. He was very well known for his photographs of the war in Korea and was best known for his portraits of Picasso. He was a master. And, he thought that this scruffy guy who he had come upon had stolen the photographs from a master, and started trying to find a policeman to report the theft!

Twilight Skyline, 1995 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: What gear did George prefer? 

Phyllis Wrynn: George always made something out of nothing. He worked with whatever camera he was carrying at the moment. But when we were working on The Access Project, he brought several cases and was very global in his thinking about what he needed. There was sheet film for view cameras, rolls of film for others. Batteries. Shutter cable releases. He had at least two tripods, sometimes a third. 

He thought in terms of the location–whether it was going to be one possibly best captured with a 4″x 5” or 6” x 7” format. Some shoots lent themselves to using a 35mm. He always came prepared. I never remember, in the dozens and dozens of shoots we went on, that he ever ran out of anything he needed. But he always had at least one person and often two to help him lug things around for these formal shoots.  He was also very happy with one handheld camera.  

Scale in NYC, 2000 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: You accompanied George on many of his outings to photograph the city. What was that like?

Phyllis Wrynn: We were very lucky to have clients and friends and relatives of clients who had spectacular views of the city from their apartments, fire escapes, rooftops, and balconies. When we would find out about these locations, I contacted those who lived and worked in the locations, and we made appointments for certain days and times. We scheduled two or three shoots a day for two or three days. It varied, depending on several factors.  

George was a master of composition. He knew how to wait. Here’s an example: we got access to the top of the Siegel Cooper building, one of the great Ladies Mile architectural wonders in Manhattan. Mitch, my husband, and George went up to the roof. The person from the building who opened up to the roof basically gave them free rein. It was a gray day. George set everything up. 

All the great elements were there: the Towers, the water towers, layers of architectural elements, but nothing was singing to him. So they waited. And they waited. And they waited some more.  Suddenly, a man walked onto the roof of the building across the street.  He gave the scene scale…exactly what was needed.  It was brilliant, and we decided that it would be the last image of The Access Project. That was in 2000.

East River Panorama with Brooklyn Bridge and Twin Towers © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: What are some of your favorite memories of George from your years working with him?

Phyllis Wrynn: All of the chaos in his early years melted away when George had a camera in hand. Getting from his small and sleepy town of Cambridge, NY, to the big city was a four-and-a-half-hour drive at best, with bad traffic as he neared the city. In the entire time we worked together, he was never late. He was always so well-prepared. We gave him lunch or dinner, and he caught us up on Cambridge news. We reviewed the new locations and how we got them. There was always a pulse…and no matter what else was going on, we really kept to that pulse.   

He would go back to Cambridge after the shoots. He developed the negs, made small proof prints of images he especially liked, and sent back a copy of the contact sheet and his selection of small proofs. I would then scour them to see what I thought would be good to include in the project. So it was always the two of us in consultation. And, in the almost ten years we did this, there was never a shoot that yielded absolutely nothing of interest. That was a remarkable thing.

Night Jazz/70 Pine, 1995 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: Which of George’s photos means the most to you, and why do you think that is? 

Phyllis Wrynn: I love so very many of George’s images, but there a few that rise to the top.  If you take a look at Night Jazz/70 Pine Street, that is an Art Deco masterpiece, which George captures in his composition. He shot from the building but got a splendid architectural detail of the building as well. 

The day was grim and gray. That location was the last shoot of the day. George never shot in total darkness–more like the last light of the day. With the rain and drizzle, it seemed like a lot of effort from all of us that wasn’t going to yield anything. We had everything set up; George prepared everything, drove all the way downstate, but we couldn’t control the weather. It was an amazing location, so starting the day with a drizzle was very sad. 

George and Mitch went in by subway with all of the gear. Mitch got taxis from location to location. They ended up at 70 Pine. I had decided that because of the rain, I would go and pick them up with our car. When Mitch called, I told him about my plan, and we made a meeting place. I was prepared to console them because it had been such a bad weather day. But, they were like two kids! They were so excited because George was convinced that the elements of the weather that I thought would interfere actually enhanced the images. There was glistening…magic.  

George was completely sure before he developed a single neg that he got at least something spectacular. He hightailed it upstate the next morning, and after so much work and energy expended, he developed the negs later that day. He called. His voice was electric. This is what he got. As I have written, it is like looking at Rhapsody in Blue.

West 17th, Looking Downtown, 1994 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: What do you think the city meant to George, both before and after the attacks? Did you ever speak with him about the 9/11 attacks specifically?

Phyllis Wrynn: I don’t know if he ever wrapped his head around the loss of the Towers. I curated an exhibition in March of 2002. It was my way of working out my deep sadness that just wouldn’t quit. Gallery One was filled with George’s images of the Towers, and Gallery Two had midcentury etchings and prints and photographs from when the Towers weren’t on the skyline. 

I was trying to imagine that in dynamic places, change happens. This was a violent change, unlike the usual, more gradual ones. My feeling is that he had such a visual relationship with the Towers that he, like so many of us, didn’t recognize the city as we had come to visually internalize it for so very long.

Buddha In Brooklyn, 1994 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phoblographer: Is there a question that you wish I’d asked you–or a question you wish you’d asked George?

Phyllis Wrynn: There is a lot of mythology about George’s life. When he was focused on his photography, he was as engaged as anyone could possibly be. He was looking, thinking, considering, deciding, and waiting for Bresson-like perfect moments.  

I really knew George, I would say, 95%, as a savant photographer. He concocted his own equipment. If something didn’t exist, he invented it. He could fix equipment that was dead and gone. He would speak in rapturous tones about how he got a particular shot. He did time exposures and double and triple exposures…in the camera. It was magic. 

He was shy in many ways, especially when meeting new people, but it was an amazing experience to hear him explain techniques and processes. He never condescended. He loved when people wanted to know how he worked.  

Photography was so much of his being. But he had a lot of other interests as well, many of which meant a lot to him. I was outside of that realm. I guess I would have liked you to ask him if his other interests meant as much to him. I really don’t know, but the answer might be surprising. 

I would also ask him if he could have taken just one shot, what would it have been? I’ve thought that about my own work. I love some images so much, it makes me weep that somehow I captured something that will now live forever, even though I don’t. I honestly don’t know what his answer would be… a mystery.

From Heliport at Journal Square, 1995 © George Forss, courtesy Park Slope Gallery

Phyllis Wrynn is the Director and Owner of Park Slope Gallery in Brooklyn, New York. You can learn more about her and the artists she represents by visiting the gallery’s website. We encourage you to read her essay George Forss – In Memoriam to learn more about the artist behind the camera.