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'Disco Night Sept 11'

Gideon Jacobs, creative director of Magnum Photos New York, on Peter van Agtmael's forthcoming monograph, <i>Disco Night Sept 11</i>.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum 

My tenth-grade American history teacher once told us that in the Civil War, twice as many men died of disease than died in combat.

That macabre Snapple fact is all I really remember from that class. It felt weighty, highlighting something that seemed revelatory because it was suddenly so goddamn obvious: War doesn’t exist in a vacuum. War exists in this world—this brutally unsexy place of sandwiches, video games, baseball, friends, soda, Walmart, foot cramps, allergies, and—of course—cold weather and disease. Maybe I was slow on the uptake, but this blew my little 15-­year-­old mind.

Now, ten years later, Magnum’s Peter van Agtmael plops his new book Disco Night Sept 11 on my desk, and I’m suddenly having the revelation all over again, only this time with a more immediate relevance and bite.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum 

The elevator pitch of Disco Night Sept 11 is certainly Romantic even if it’s mostly about the erosion of Romanticism: A boy who idolized his veteran grandfather, played with toy soldiers, and studied the history of warfare wakes up on the morning of September 11 an aimless college kid. He wakes up not all that many mornings later a war photographer in the thick of things in Iraq and Afghanistan. He witnesses both the loud horrors—limbs blown off, skin burned away—and the quiet horrors borne of months of bad food and boredom. He comes home the same but different, and eventually puts together a deeply personal book.

It makes me feel alien sometimes, but images of conflict, of guns, gore, and guts, rarely get serious traction in my emotional marketplace. Maybe it’s because war has never been on my doorstep, but the pictures that seem to have the ability to undo me—the ones that can induce the kind of nausea that I usually associate with missing a step on some stairs—tend to be grounded in the everyday.

I like that photography is a medium where big things can happen in little places, where the echoes of the abyss can be heard in the silent hum of a neon Del Taco sign (see: Philip ­Lorca diCorcia’s Hustlers) or some dull complexity of existence found in the slopped-on preparations of a PB&J (see: Alec Soth’s Last Days of W).

Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum 

But somehow Disco Night Sept 11 works backwards, deriving its power from an inverted flow of significance that has epically little things happening in pathetically big places.

Take van Agtmael’s somewhat unremarkable picture of the historic inauguration of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, a man who felt like a messianic figure of hope after eight years of Bush Round Two. The shutter clicks well after the ceremonies, in a moment when a gust of wind is blowing the event’s detritus into the face of a family that’s bundled up in a lame way that’s somehow uniquely American. That day, 1.8 million people congregated in the National Mall and stared at the back of the head of the stranger in front of them while freezing their asses off and listening to a speech they could have heard on Youtube.

With complete seriousness and sincerity, that’s what it is to witness history. That is history—a day they’ll never forget, one they’ll tell their grandkids about.

Photo by Peter van Agtmael/Magnum 

See, van Agtmael’s photographs, whether captured during the death­-ridden throes of war or the more quotidian moments that accompany it, constantly undermine surreality. His photographs constantly prevent us from imbuing them with Romanticism. But they do so without being unfairly harsh or even cynical.

Instead, they simply seem to recognize a reliable dissonance between reality and the way we imagine it, between life and the way we imagine it, between war and the way we imagine it. If Disco Night Sept 11 is a work that asserts anything, it’s that the exploration of that dissonance is both an integral part of thinking in a historical context and an unavoidable part of just plain growing up.

The book opens with van Agtmael stating that he felt war was “in him” from the beginning of his consciousness. But kids don’t really know what war is. Kids don’t really know what anything is. What we have in us from the beginning are the placeholders, the blocks of dummy text that keep the seat warm for more concrete versions of it all.

So is Disco Night Sept 11 about the loss of those placeholders and—in turn—about a loss of innocence? Nah, that stinks of the same Romanticism van Agtmael seems to habitually shirk. That would be another kind of tale best told by a grandfather and best acted out by a boy and his toy soldiers.

It feels more appropriate to just call this great work one man’s reconciliation between war and everything else, between 9/11 and disco dances, and leave it at that. 

Signed copies of Disco Night Sept 11 are available in Magnum's web store. It was published by Red Hook Editions, the publishing community Peter van Agtmael runs with photographers Jason Eskenazi and Alan Chin.

Gideon Jacobs is the creative director of Magnum Photos, New York. He was an actor and now is a writer, publishing a book called Letters to My Imaginary Friends in summer 2014.