When photographer Peter B. Kaplan (September 29, 1939-March 19, 2019) passed last month, New York lost one of its originals. Long before Instagram accounts began taking their followers to the tops of buildings and bridges around the world, Mr. Kaplan fathered the high-wire arts right here.
Born in Manhattan and raised in Great Neck, he conquered both childhood dyslexia and a dose of acrophobia to do so. Although he initially took pre-med courses at C.W. Post College (Brookville, NY) and at Farley Dickinson University (East Rutherford, NJ), he transferred to Sam Houston State University (Huntsville, Texas) in 1963 to major in photography. However, he ultimately left college, returned to New York, and spent much of the 1960s and ’70s assisting other lensmen like Carl Fischer (Esquire), John Dominis (LIFE), and Arnold Newman (portraiture).
After his apprenticeships, Mr. Kaplan shot wildlife essays for Audubon Magazine, Time/Life Books, and others, but turned to architecture after being captivated by the rise of the first World Trade Center. In 1979, on assignment for New York Magazine, he followed a group of ironworkers there for 12 days and what happened would change his life forever.
As the workers installed the North Tower’s new 400-foot antenna, Mr. Kaplan used a 16mm fisheye lens attached to his camera on an expandable pole to capture their maneuvers. One day, on a break, a member of the crew named Dickie Riley decided to “moon” the photographer and snap: Mr. Kaplan’s “Moon over Manhattan” was born. At the time the Village Voice recounted the moment for its story below, he’d already sold 5,000 postcards of the image and was beginning to offer life-size prints too. He was now known as that “daredevil photographer.”
From there, he’d continue shooting the World Trade Center, then other landmarks like the Chrysler Building, Brooklyn Bridge, Empire State Building, George Washington Bridge, and Statue of Liberty from high above the city. Explaining how he gained access to such notoriously off-limit places, Mr. Kaplan told shutterbug.com in 2007 that “I built my name and reputation on safety and doing things legally, with permission.”
His photos were exhibited all over the world: at the Old Saatchi Gallery (London, England), the Open Palm Court (New Delhi, India), the Interfoto State Exhibition Hall (Moscow, Russia), and the FNAC Saint Lazare (Paris, France). There were a host of local appearances too, including stints at the New York Historical Society, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Municipal Art Society, and the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Today, his prints are in the permanent collections of the 9/11 Museum (New York, NY), the Museum of Modern Art (New York, NY), the Smithsonian Institute (Washington, D.C.), the National Archives (Washington, D.C.), the Portland Museum of Art (Portland, ME), and the Bibliotheque Nationale (Paris, France).
Speaking to delawareonline.com last month, Mr. Kaplan’s widow Sharon remembered that her husband “could push you to places that you never thought you’d go. It was miraculous. You did things you never would have done without him.” And,
He [was] a New York guy. He was just a force of nature.
When asked by the New York Times what she thought about his photos of the Statue of Liberty — he produced 125,000 of them depicting its restoration in the 1980s — Ms. Kaplan said,
He gave the statue human qualities and characteristics which reflected his deep reverence and obsession for this subject matter.
From their home in Hockessin, DE, she also confirmed that Mr. Kaplan died from “interstitial lung disease.” She felt he acquired it from the all time he spent at the World Trade Center site after September 11th “breathing the debris.” Sadly, the day keeps killing people. Released on the first anniversary of the attack, the book Eleven: Witnessing the World Trade Center 1974-2002 contains some images he took during those dark times.
But Mr. Kaplan will live on like the Twin Towers: larger than life, a great scaler of heights, present in the photos that prove he was here.
(1) Photo by Peter B. Kaplan. Undated.
Mr. Kaplan on the antenna of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Courtesy of the New York Times.
(2) Blurb about Mr. Kaplan’s photo “Moon Over Manhattan” in the Village Voice. Undated, but probably 1979.
Courtesy of the Facebook account Peter B. Kaplan Images, Inc.