The Falling Man. Desperation immortalized in a photograph. A man in dress slacks, a white shirt and black velcro high-tops leaping from a burning building to his death to escape immolation. Professional and expertly framed, the vertical lines of the World Trade Center North Tower trace the length of his descent. The lines, slightly slanting to the left, juxtapose unsettlingly with the man's perfectly vertical headfirst alignment.
Taken by jet-setting Associated Press photographer Richard Drew, a cultural artist cum photojournalist, The Falling Man was an immediate news sensation upon release. Intellectuals idolized the photo. It ran in countless newspapers the days after 9/11. Perhaps no other photo exploited the misery of the tragedy better.
Drew, who usually wears a sleek black t-shirt under a suit jacket when he poses for photos, projects an air of cool, jaded indifference toward his work. He was just doing his job on 9/11. He later explained to Esquire why The Falling Man captivated him:
"You learn in photo editing to look for the frame. You have to recognize it. That picture just jumped off the screen because of its verticality and symmetry. It just had that look."
He didn't even bother to look at the rest of the photos he'd uploaded to his laptop. That photo was the one, the singular moment when his digital lens had captured what our fazed human eyes would've passed over, the art in life - in both joy and suffering - that usually goes unnoticed.
Some thought the photo was too exploitative. By September 14, nearly all American news agencies had stopped printing and broadcasting images of people leaping from the World Trade Center towers to avoid controversy. According to USA Today, at least 200 people had leapt from the burning towers. The New York City medical examiner's office refused to consider their deaths suicides, arguing that those people had been "forced out by the smoke and flames or blown out."
The Falling Man was later identified as Jonathan Briley, an employee at the restaurant Windows on the World's audiovisual department. His body was found still intact after the 100-odd story fall.