Illustration by Tom Bachtell
In June, 2001, Konstantin Petrov, an immigrant from Estonia, got a job as an electrician at Windows on the World, the restaurant atop the north tower of the World Trade Center. He was given a little office without cabinets, and after he built a shelf there, by bolting a steel plate to an exposed steel girder, he sent his friends a photograph of himself lying across it, and boasted that if the shelf ever collapsed the building would go down with it…
Petrov worked the night shift. This suited him, not only because he had a day job, as the superintendent of an apartment building at the other end of Manhattan, but because he was an avid photographer, and the emptiness of the Trade Center at night, together with the stunning vistas at dawn, gave him a lot to shoot, and a lot of time and space in which to shoot it. In the summer of 2001, he took hundreds of digital photographs, mostly of offices, table settings, banquettes, sconces, stairwells, kitchen equipment, and elevator fixtures. Many shots were lit by the rising sun, with the landscape of the city in the background, gleaming and stark-shadowed, more than a hundred floors below.
This past summer, Erik Nelson, a documentary filmmaker, was trying to finish cutting a film called “9/10: The Final Hours,” for the National Geographic Channel. He’d dug up all kinds of footage shot the day before the September 11th terrorist attacks, but very little of what the buildings had looked like inside. Amid a desperation for interiors, there was talk of abandoning the project. Then one of Nelson’s film researchers came across a trove of Petrov’s pictures, on an Estonian photo-sharing site called Fotki.
Nelson felt as though he had stumbled on the tomb of King Tut. For whatever reason, this Petrov had turned an archivist’s eye on the banalities of an office building and a sky-top restaurant, which, though destroyed in one of history’s most photographed events, had hardly been photographed at all. The pictures were beautiful, too. Devoid of people, and suffused with premonitory gloom, they made art out of a site that most New Yorkers, at the time, had come to think of as an eyesore. Petrov seemed to be a kind of savant of the commonplace, as though he’d known that all of it would soon disappear down a smoking pit. Inadvertently or not, he left behind a ghostly record, apparently the only one, of this strange twentieth-century aerie, as though he’d been sent here for this purpose alone.
Another Estonian named Dmitri Don developed one of the first photo-sharing sites – for Estonians to share photos from America with friends back home. Fotki is where Petrov’s photos live. RTFA for the whole tale.
Petrov died less than a year after 9/11 in a motorcycle crash on the West Side Highway.
“It’s a big lesson to all of us,” Dmitri Don said. “Take picture now of what we have.”