We all have a visual memory of 9/11. Maybe it was what we saw that day, maybe it is the people we no longer see. One of the images that became the memory for much of the world was taken from a hilltop in Verona by Robert Cumins. Next month, on October 19, he will put a print of that photo–which shows the second terrorist plane approaching the second World Trade Center tower–up for auction, along with a rare collection of photos from the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Cumins, by his own account, has always been fascinated by history, and he has been front and center for many key events of the 20th century, camera in hand. He covered former President Richard Nixon’s trips to Key Biscayne and every handshake of the Middle East peace process. He captured Mary Ann Vecchio, the teenage runaway whose grief immortalized the Kent State shootings, as she returned to Florida. His picture of financier Ivan Boesky made the cover of Time magazine in 1986 when the Wall Streeter fell from grace. And though he has largely made the transition from film to digital photography, Cumins still can’t bear to destroy an image after it is taken. “What it took for me to push that delete button the first time,” he says, shaking his head. “I hear that voice, ‘never delete, never delete’ because you never know.”
The Kennedy images were not ones that Cumins took, but they are probably the whole reason he became a professional photographer in the first place. Kennedy came to office when Cumins was a teenager and like most teens then, he was taken by the young president. He went to Washington and met with Kennedy’s press secretary, Pierre Salinger, a trip that was covered by the now defunct Paterson Evening News.
When Kennedy was killed, someone at the newspaper remembered Cumins’ interest in the president and gave him all the wirephotos, the ink prints that had been taken and transmitted to the paper. Cumins put the images–more than 340 of them–into 12 albums that he took with him every time he moved, including his latest move to Verona’s Claridge House 13 years ago. They are expected to fetch $25,000 to $35,000 at the auction, which will take place at Swann Auction Galleries in Manhattan.
Nine years ago, Cumins was at the light at the end of Claridge Drive when he heard the news about the first plane hitting the Trade Center. He turned his car around, returned to his building, and jammed a lens and film into his camera as fast as he could. “I saw the plane coming up from the south,” he says, “but I figured it was just a plane taking off from Newark. It never entered my consciousness that it was a plane headed for the tower. I saw the fireball, but I thought it was a gas line exploding.” One of the photos he took that day became the cover of People magazine, and the print that will go to auction has an estimate of $1,500 to $2,500.
Though Cumins has had quite a career as a news photographer, he knows that that profession may no longer exist. “There isn’t a big opening for news photographers,” he says ruefully. “Everybody is walking around with a camera. The media receives tons of phtoos from people who never lifted up a camera before yesterday. There are no more exclusives.”
“When a kid comes to me now and says ‘I want to be in the news business’ I say, ‘Do weddings and bar miztvahs.’ Doing a wedding is like doing a documentary,” Cumins adds. “You never know what will happen. Stay out of the way, stay the entire night, and keep shooting.”