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Sid Birns’s Remarkable Self-Assignment

By Chuck DeLaney - NYIP Graduate Sid Birns, who attended NYIP’s residential school back in the 1940s, contacted us last week with a very interesting story.  It involves a self-assignment that he gave himself back in the early 1970s. 

Let’s start at the beginning.  Sid grew up in New York City and decided to study art at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.  A friend showed introduced him to the traditional darkroom, and when Sid saw that first print start to come up in the developing tray, he – like so many other photographers of many generations – was hooked.  Photography became his calling.  “My first camera was a 39-cent Univex A,” he recalled.  As for so many others of his generation, World War II intervened, but when Sid returned to New York City, he attended NYIP on the G.I. Bill.  After that, he started working for Acme Newspictures, which became part of United Press International (UPI).  For many years, UPI was the principal photo competitor of the Associated Press photo service.  Sid recalls that his first motorcycle ride was on the back of a courier’s motorcycle bringing film from a photographer at a baseball game back to the office for processing. 

Of his time as a UPI photographer, Sid says carefully, “This was not a job for me.  This was a love thing.  Every day, I couldn’t wait to get back on the job.”  But Sid, having the kind of mind that he does, liked challenges, and he gave himself one: Photographing the Twin Towers, which were rising over Lower Manhattan.  Over the next few decades, Sid photographed the World Trade Center over and over again.  Only this spring, did he decide to assemble those photographs into a self-published book: Gone…but not forgotten. [link to blurb site] As Sid writes in the introduction to his book, “Photographing the Twin Towers began as a personal challenge.  I wanted to see how many different ways I could turn two plain buildings with no distinctive features into something beyond their straight lines.”

Sid would take breaking news assignments that required the photographer to go into the air with a helicopter pilot and then persuade the pilot to take a turn around the Towers on the way home.  “Everyone was taking straight snapshots of the Towers and it drove me crazy.  I wanted to see what I could do with those buildings.”  If a news story took him downtown on the subway, he’d make time to walk the streets that bounded the Trade Center plaza, looking for new angles, different lighting, or different weather. 

Sid taught for a time, and he’d challenge his students, “Do you ever look up?  Do you ever look sideways?”  Sid practiced what he preached. 

On 9/11/2001, Sid was in Canada, and turned on the television, at first thinking he was watching a movie.  As he realized that this was real, his first instinct was to grab a 35mm SLR and start taking pictures of the story unfolding on the screen.  “All my life I’ve followed the news and been there for the big story, but this time I was here and that was there.  This time, I was nowhere near it and couldn’t do anything about it.”

Sid’s daughter helped him assemble the book and plan the layout. He proudly explains that she’s a former jet pilot instructor for the Air Force so the technical things come naturally to her.  “She had the ways and means to put it together,” he observes. 

Sid didn’t publish this book to get rich.  Rather, he explains, “The primary thing for me was to get this out there for its historical value, a thing for people to see – the Twin Towers from all angles.”  He’s sending a copy to the Library of Congress.

Although he’s retired from UPI, Sid still submits work to local papers in Quebec and Florida since he divides his time between the two locations.  “The camera never left me.  To this day that’s true,” he notes.  And, he has another book already planned that will feature other photo stories he’s taken over the years, beginning with his 1952 coverage of Manhattan’s Feast of San Gennaro that’s held every fall in Little Italy.

Sid Birns is a born storyteller and we salute our graduate and wish him well with his future endeavors.

To preview and purchase his book, Gone...but not forgotten, click here.

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