Deep, dark, and intense, John Botte stares ahead with eyes that have seen and experienced too much, belying his otherwise youthful appearance. On September 11, 2001, Botte was an NYPD detective assigned to Police Commissioner Bernie Kerik’s inner circle. When they got the call about the attacks on the World Trade Center, they rushed to Ground Zero, among the many heroic first responders who risked their lives to help save others during that unimaginable tragedy. Botte, who has been snapping photographs since he was a small boy, was authorized by Kerik to document what was happening, so he took out his ever-present Leica Rangefinder and spent the next few days and months taking remarkable black-and-white photographs, twenty of which are currently on view at the Gallery at Calumet on West 22nd St. through September 24. Being shown to the public for the first time at this size — smaller prints were previously exhibited only once before, in Germany, and have appeared in two books, 2006’s Aftermath and the brand-new collection The 9/11 Photographs, but Botte insisted that this time “they have to be big” — the stunning large-scale works capture poignant, emotional, intimate moments that will flood viewers with memories, inviting them to step inside and remember. “There was no time for grief,” Botte recalled after being dispatched by Kerik, a collector of his work, to take pictures of the scene. “You’re just a machine with the camera.”
The exhibit, curated by Timothy White and organized by Peter Blachley and the Morrison Hotel Gallery, consists of beautifully composed photos that depict such powerful sights as a distraught cop leaning on a blue police barricade, his head hung in horror; three workers raising the American flag, recalling the famous Iwo Jima image; a group of men in white protective outfits sweeping through endless debris; and Fire Commissioner Thomas Von Essen, Kerik, Senator Charles Schumer, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, President George W. Bush, Congressman Jerry Nadler, and Governor George Pataki surveying the damage. One of the most compelling of the photos, and the one that resonates the most with Botte, shows the smoking, twisted metal atop the pile, taken three hundred feet up. Although Botte is proud that his photographs are part of the tenth-anniversary commemoration of 9/11, it’s been a particularly rough decade for him. “I’m a dead man walking,” he said, alluding to the lung disease he developed after working at Ground Zero and that is slowly killing him. He retired from the force in 2003, his wife left him and took their daughter, and he now spends more than half of his pension on health care. As he walks around the exhibit another time, he is almost like a ghost, but his inner strength and spirit still survives in the unforgettable photos he took ten years ago. On September 11, Botte will be at the Gallery at Calumet for a special opening reception from 3:00 to 7:00; prints of his photographs are available in several sizes, with all proceeds going to the DEA Widows’ and Children's Fund.