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Two decades of Manhattan through a photographer's window

Interview: Kate Müser
September 11, 2017

For over 20 years, Reiner Leist has taken a photo nearly every day from the window of his Manhattan apartment. His unique, long-term project "Window" reveals the evolution of the city - before and after 9/11.

Reiner Leist's Window photo from September 12, 2001, Copyright: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist
Image: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist

German photographer Reiner Leist portrays New York City with two old full-plate cameras. When he began photographing the view from his Manhattan window in 1995, he never could have imagined that six years later, a major terrorist attack would deeply impact both the city and his ongoing project, "Window."

DW: Where were you on September 11, 2001?

Reiner Leist: I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I taught at MIT for three years, from 2000 to 2003. In a way, it reminds me of the importance of your profession. What I remember of that day is some rigged up black-and-white TV somewhere in the hallway or carried into the elevator. I got all my information from the media because I wasn't in the city.

You'd already been documenting Manhattan in your Window project since 1995. What was Manhattan like prior to 9/11?

My viewpoint is a very unusual one in the sense that is comes out of the Loft Law. As you know from SoHo and other areas in Manhattan, there were vast areas of commercial space that were no longer rented. After manufacturing didn't work in the city anymore, people moved out of the city - and artists moved into places previously occupied by manufacturing industries.

Eventually the city said, "We can't stop this anymore, we have to legalize it." They wrote a law saying that landlords could legally take money from residential tenants if they fixed the places up. Part of that law said that the tenants had to be on floors above commercial units. They couldn't have machines above the residential units. So many of those units - like mine - were towards the top of the building.

My place is in mid-town right next to Madison Square Garden und between Port Authority and Penn Station - and that location offers just a really incredible view of downtown Manhattan.

Reiner Leist's Window photo from September 12, 2001, Copyright: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist
Image: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist

What was the feeling in Manhattan in that time - perhaps the feeling that drew you to the city to begin with?

The feeling in the early 90s was one of possibility, that you could do almost anything here. It was perhaps not that different from Berlin in the sense that there was change and, to some degree, affordable space. There was also a feeling that here were the people who write the books you read, the movies you watch, and you can have a conversation with those you are interested in.

I moved there from South Africa, where I'd lived for six or seven years and where dramatic social change had taken place. But compared to New York, Cape Town is a fairly small town. For me, in the 90s New York was still a tough town that required respect. When I came here in the 80s to visit and look at graduate programs, I felt I wasn't ready for the city; it was just too harsh and gritty. I'm glad I didn't come here at that time but chose to be in South Africa instead.

Your "Window" photo from September 12, 2001 is well-known, so you must have returned to New York soon after the attacks. How did you experience the city in those first few days?

Honestly, I was in a complete trance. You can see it in that photograph. It's actually pretty blurry because I wasn't able to properly focus the camera. I was in such a state. Even though I was in the city and could have walked down there, I couldn't physically do that for several days. There was no rationalizing, there was no understanding; it was just complete awe.

Did the project become a way for you to work through the attack?

In a way, it did. In a time of crisis, you refer back to what you always do. Suddenly, normalcy becomes a highly valued good. To be able to do what you always did in the past reassures you of who you are. And my routine of taking the pictures was part of that.

Why did you choose to use an old-fashioned full-plate camera, and how did you get your hands on one that still worked?

I found one in Africa, actually, in a thrift store. There are two cameras: One from the 1890s from London, and the American one is from the 1920s. I bought it in the US from the original owner's son as he was selling the entire studio towards the end of his life For me, it was important because I wanted to incorporate the time distance in the visualization. When you look at those images, it's a contradiction. You're looking at something that looks really old, and at the same time you realize, "Oh, there's something in there that can't have been there last year." So it's also very contemporary. That tension was something I was looking for.

Reiner Leist, Copyright: Copyright: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist
Reiner Leist sees 'Window' as a portrait of the cityImage: VG-Bild Kunst/Reiner Leist

Having grown up with four generations - I knew my four great-grandparents when I grew up - I had this sense of time passing. In a Walter Benjamin's "Angel" kind of way, I was looking for a form that would hold that. [Eds.: Walter Benjamin was a German philosopher who wrote the following about Paul Klee's painting, "Angelus Novus:": The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress."]

And we were approaching the end of the century and the millennium. I felt that if I used something that was in use a hundred years ago, maybe I can hint at that tension between the centuries.

Your "Windows" project is still ongoing. How have you seen New York City transition over the years since 2001 - just from your window?

I have to use the word "paradox." One way of understanding my "Window" project is to see it as a portrait of the city. If I made a portrait of you over a period of 20 years, one thing wouldn't change: It is you, and it will remain you. On the other hand, you will change and age. You will appear visually different. I think that's true for Manhattan as well. I see a dramatic amount of new buildings that have gone up and changes in the facades. But essentially the main, fundamental structure has somehow remained identical.

You've been in New York for over 20 years. In a project like "Window," do you bring an outside perspective, or do you see yourself as a New Yorker?

I hope it's somewhere in between. Take vision: I think that when you look at your own experience that is communicated through your eyes, when you're too close to something, you have a problem seeing, and if you're too far away, you may have a problem seeing. I go back and forth between Germany and the US quite often and I feel that I'm trying to maintain some kind of distance and closeness at the same time.

You submitted an entry to the World Trade Center Site Memorial Competition and proposed erecting 2,792 memorial telephone booths around the former WTC site. Though your proposal was not chosen, could you outline what the telephone booths would have meant for you?

In the sense that I was describing "Window" as a portrait project, my hope for the World Trade Center Memorial Competition was to create portraits of those who were lost in the attack. One way of creating a portrait is oral history. My idea was to dedicate a site - a phone booth, which is becoming more and more obsolete as the years go by - and these would be sites where you could walk by, pick up the phone and hear stories provided by the loved one or people connected to the person who was lost. In that sense, that person's presence would be retained, and there would be an opportunity to connect to their history.

German photographer Reiner Leist, born in 1964, has lived in Manhattan since 1994. He studied art and photography in Munich, Cape Town and New York City. His works are often ongoing and examine the relationship between people and society. He launched "Window" in 1995, taking a photo from his Manhattan apartment nearly every day. The project has been published in three books.

This interview was originally published on September 8, 2016, for the 15th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.