What I remember about the dust

From a photography studio at NYU, I watched the towers fall. For weeks, a column of dust and smoke hung in the sky

Published September 11, 2021 7:30PM (EDT)

View of smoke and dust rising from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 from across the East River (Photo provided by author, Matt Valentine)
View of smoke and dust rising from Ground Zero on September 11, 2001 from across the East River (Photo provided by author, Matt Valentine)

My childhood home in Spokane was filled with dusty glass cases and shelves displaying my parents' collections: scrimshawed walrus tusks, cast-iron coin banks, carved corkscrews and bottle tops, trinkets made of vegetable ivory, vintage sewing machines, gold-plated mechanical pencils. In one corner, a 5-foot whale baleen like a feather plucked from a griffon; in another, a prototypical washing machine, its tub made from a half cask of whiskey.

Sometime around 1981 or 1982, my mother purchased three sets of human remains from a funeral home downtown. The family-run mortuary had outlived its line of heirs. An estate auctioneer led a walking tour through the house, selling off the furniture, the artwork and the carpets in each room before moving on to the next. My parents had gone looking for anything curious and undervalued.

The auction crowd thinned as the day stretched on. My parents bought a "fainting bed" — a long wooden daybed on wheels with a narrow horsehair mattress. No one bid against them. A man from Seattle bought several oak doors that had been stored in the basement. He said he planned to make dolphin pens out of them.

Finally they came to a supply room stuffed with miscellaneous junk. Broken garden tools, cardboard boxes stuffed with who-knows-what. The auctioneer announced that he would sell everything in the room together as one lot. My mother noticed a galvanized watering can and bid $10. She won the whole room, and workmen loaded everything into my father's van. It was only later that we discovered the tagboard urns. There were three of them, green cubes each with a gummed label — a typed name and the word "scatter."

In the official version of this story, the one my parents told at cocktail parties and reunions, they made some phone calls, and then a chastened representative of the funeral home came out to our house to retrieve the ashes. (In my constructed memory, the driver arrived at our curb in a hearse.) But I have a conflicting memory of at least one box that remained for years on a shelf of knickknacks. Memory, like dust, changes as you sift it. It may settle, but it's easily stirred.


I became a photographer, an occupation in which dust is an obsession. Every photographer must learn to spot out the dust. It used to be that we'd do this with a fine-bristled brush — dabbing various densities of black dye onto the print. Now we mostly use Photoshop, grabbing a cluster of nearby pixels and pasting them over a speck in the image.

I might photograph you for 15 minutes, or maybe the whole morning. But it's afterward, at my computer, that I get to know you intimately. I spend hours with an image of you, spotting dust.

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I spot out the dust on your clothes, your face, your hair. I hover the clone tool over a patch of clean skin, copy those pixels and transplant them. Your portrait, magnified to 100 percent, extends well beyond the edges of my screen, so that only a piece of you is visible — an eyebrow now. It's not that you're dirty, not at all — you've showered this morning — but you are nevertheless speckled. Anything light enough to be borne by the wind might land on you — bits of hair and skin, pollen, the decaying husks of dead insects, the driest soil of the Sahara, ash from a Colorado wildfire, the pulverized glass and concrete of a demolished skyscraper. The worst of it is on your glasses. Dust is pernicious. It's everywhere.


For millennia, storytellers have been turning people to dust. In Greek and Mayan myths, in the Hebrew bible, in Stoker's "Dracula" and now the Avengers movies, anyone or anything turned to dust is rendered harmless. But dust isn't harmless.

In 2008, the accumulated dust at a sugar packing plant in Port Wentworth, Georgia, had grown inches deep in places. This was not just the granulated crystals but also a finer powder, crushed in the gears of machinery and underfoot. The dust suspended in the air reached precisely the right concentration to be flash combustible. Fourteen people died in that dust explosion.


A good tool for cleaning dust from photographic negatives is a camelhair brush with a small piece of polonium at the base of the bristles. The weak radioactive field disrupts static electricity, which would otherwise attract more dust. The radiation also leaves a light brown burn on the inside of the cardboard box in which the brush is stored.


My earliest memory is from inside the cab of a wrecked U-Haul truck. My father is lifting me from the overturned six-wheeler, out through the driver's-side window and into a sky filled with swirling dust. In this memory, the world is nearly static — the sky is framed by the dark trapezoid of the window opening. Nothing moves except the dust sifting in the sunlight.

This was months before Mt. St. Helens blew its top, but in my memory (a toddler's memory) the dust rising from our wreck off the shoulder of the highway is the same fine stuff that fell over seven states in the wake of the eruption. A recollection persists of a footprint stamped in ash on the road — my own, or my father's, or maybe an image transposed from an entirely different context. (Buzz Aldrin's photograph of Neil Armstrong's bootprint on the surface of the moon, perhaps.)

Though it was 250 miles away from the volcano, our new house in Spokane had also been dusted with volcanic ash. If a strong gust of wind shook the trees in our yard, you'd see the dust rising from the branches. A narrow heap of ash residue bowed the telephone lines and power lines.

People old enough to remember tell me that the sky had been strange for weeks after the eruption — the sunsets fiery and eerie from all that dust clouding the atmosphere. It's difficult to imagine a cloud that weighs 540 million tons, though even that is modest by geological standards. The fossil record indicates that still more massive, ancient volcanic eruptions might have dimmed the sun for years, causing ice ages and great extinctions. Mt. St. Helens wasn't nearly so destructive, killing only 11,000 rabbits, 6,000 deer, 5,200 elk, 1,400 coyotes, 300 bobcats, 200 black bears and 15 mountain lions. 

In all, 57 people died, and a few hundred more lost their homes. A rescue helicopter, already overladen, spotted Lu Moore in her hunter-orange jacket, trying to traverse a sea of downed trees with her husband and son. They'd been camping. The pilot shouted down to her that they could climb aboard, but she'd have to leave her backpack behind. "There's a baby in it," she shouted back.

The Spirit Lake Lodge disappeared entirely, along with its proprietor, and along with the lake itself. The water — which had been completely displaced in a landslide — later returned, but the lake is now 200 feet shallower. Four dozen bridges burned or collapsed under the weight of ash and debris.

Yes, it's difficult to imagine that much dust and ash suspended in the air. But reading about it now, you conjure a ready image from memory, don't you? A different cloud of ash billowing in a bright blue sky.

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Eventually, of course, there was new growth. The volcanic ash was rich in nutrients. Verdant green moss grew on the boulders in our yard, and on the house itself. If I peeled the moss away in clumps, the ash remained, soft as talcum between my fingers.

Our house caught fire one winter. The chimney had been choked with soot and ash, and ash crammed every gap in our wood shake roof. Outside in my Spider-Man pajamas, I watched the firemen douse the flames. Not much was lost, and by morning the water from the fire hoses had formed icicles thick as tree trunks and filthy with ash. They blocked the back door, but came crashing down with the slightest nudge, shattering on the icy concrete patio.


Twenty years later (and 20 years ago), I witnessed the September 11 attacks in New York. Leaning out the eighth-story window of a photography studio at NYU, I watched the towers fall. For weeks afterward, a column of dust and smoke hung in the sky. From my neighborhood across the East River, the dark cloud seemed impossibly inert, something that should be moving and changing but wasn't — unnervingly static, like one of Doc Edgerton's high-speed photographs of a bullet piercing an apple. All those little particles suspended in kinesis. The dust cloud was even there at night, illuminated by the searchlights at ground zero, casting a sinister backlight around the silhouette of the Woolworth building, the pupil in the Eye of Sauron. We had a vague awareness that the dust might be poisonous. Flyers went up in my neighborhood, posted by a local appliance store, letting us know FEMA would reimburse the cost of an air purifier.

At that time, I lived in the worst apartment on the best street in Brooklyn. Friends taller than 5 feet, 10 inches couldn't stand up in my place without bumping their heads on the ceiling, but there were three historic churches on my block. Greenpoint's bank tellers and grocery clerks spoke Polish at me presumptively. The river and a view of the Manhattan skyline were only a short walk away. I'd been shooting photographs there almost every day, among empty lots and abandoned warehouses, construction sites and homeless camps, under a huge Shepard Fairey mural of Andre the Giant. "The Brooklyn Riviera," someone had named the place, painting the words on a plywood sign above the entrance, a gaping rip in a chain-link fence. After the attack, candlelight vigils were held there every night. But life also went on — fire dancers still practiced twirling their batons and skaters still compared their scrapes and bruises, only now under a dark cloud that would have seemed painted-on if not for the acrid smell. That's where I went to photograph the dust of 9/11.

In retrospect, treating dust as a subject of photography seems an inversion of the craft. A speck of dust on a photographic negative will become a void on the enlargement, a white tumor on the print. Dust can etch glass, leaving microscopic scratches on a lens. On a digital camera, a particle that lands on the sensor will become a fixture in every photograph thereafter, a black spot at pixel location x-by-y. Dust had always been an impediment and an irritant, something to be erased rather than documented.

Six hours after the attack, I made it home to Brooklyn. It was still sunny. There were more people about than usual — the neighborhood had come out in reverence to watch the end of the world. What even were we looking at? We waited. Surely some revelation was at hand.

The proceeding generation, those born after 9/11 or too young to remember it, anticipate a plodding, protracted apocalypse — a warming of the world, predicted for decades and approaching with terrible, slouching inevitability. But on that day, calamity felt imminent. What had started couldn't be stopped. We were shepherds at the foot of Vesuvius, and it was too late to run. Something was changing. Something had changed. Three strangers sat on the shore of the river, motionless, in uncanny symmetry. I raised the big Contax and snapped a photograph. That's what I remember. That's what remains.

By Matt Valentine

Matt Valentine teaches writing at the University of Texas at Austin. His stories have been published in The Atlantic, the Washington Post, and the New Republic. His photographs have appeared in the New York Times, Men’s Journal, and Outside.

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