Eugene Richards’ “Enduring Freedom” exhibit at Photographic Center Northwest is made up of two bodies of work: Stepping Through the Ashes, and War is Personal.

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Fifteen years ago, on the morning of Sept. 11, two airplanes were hijacked and flown into the World Trade Center in New York. Another plane dived into the Pentagon in Washington. And a fourth crashed into a field in Pennsylvania. Almost 3,000 people were killed in these coordinated events, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history.

In the aftermath, people searched for survivors and then bodies. Many searched for ways to process the events — to understand, memorialize and grieve.

After returning home to New York from Europe in the days that followed, acclaimed photographer Eugene Richards, who for decades had been making images about very difficult subjects, could not bring himself to venture out into the city.

Exhibition preview

“Enduring Freedom,” photographs by Eugene Richards,

Noon-9 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, noon-6 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through Nov. 13,

Photographic Center Northwest, 900 12th Ave., Seattle (206-720-7222 or pcnw.org).

EVENTS:

Lecture, Sept. 8, 6:30-8:30 p.m.; $10 general, $5 PCNW members, students free with RSVP and ID http://shop.pcnw.org/products/lecture-eugene-richards

Community Conversation, Sept. 10, 4-6 p.m. free with RSVP: http://shop.pcnw.org/products/community-conversation-notions-of-home

But eventually, he did, and his photographs reveal a city in shock. They show “have you seen me?” posters and quiet streets and layers of dust and particulate matter. They show the gnarled remains of the World Trade Center. They show the faces of people in disbelief and mourning.

These were difficult images for him to take. And now, 15 years later, they are difficult to take in.

The large-scale, black and white photographs are on view at the Photographic Center Northwest (PCNW) as part of Richards’ first solo show on the West Coast.

The exhibition pairs two bodies of his work, both focused on everyday moments as people navigate terrible situations: Stepping Through the Ashes, made after 9/11; and War is Personal, a chronicle of the human impact of U.S. military involvement in Iraq from 2003 to today.

The post-9/11 photographs are framed in black and edge the gallery, providing a context for the white-framed photographs of veterans and families affected by the war in Iraq.

In a recent phone interview, Richards shared that he was uncomfortable with this pairing, an idea put forth by PCNW Executive Director Michelle Dunn Marsh. He eventually agreed to the proposed title, “Enduring Freedom,” because the quotation marks question what exactly endures.

“I’m very happy to have the exhibition at this time. It’s curious. We are prone to forgetting so very quickly,” Richards said.

According to Dunn Marsh, organizing this exhibition was a financial challenge for the small institution, however, “it is the right thing to do for this photographer, who richly deserves more solo exhibitions; for our region, one that is home to many veterans; and at this time — the 15th anniversary of 9/11, and a vituperous, presidential election year.”

Richards has been recognized through nearly every significant award for photography including a Guggenheim Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts grants, the Leica Medal of Excellence and the Robert F. Kennedy Lifetime Achievement in Journalism Award.

What makes his work so significant? On the one hand, Richards is akin to gifted social documentary photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Charles Harbutt. He doesn’t shy away from wrenching topics. In fact, he feels like it’s his job to make photographs of them.

On the other hand, Richards’ eye is unique. His images are compelling and heartbreaking, and yet often quite ordinary.

In a photograph of an Iraq veteran who was badly burned and lost both hands, we can — we must — think about the impact of combat, the damage to bodies and lives. But we can also focus on the way the man tenderly holds his daughter in his arms, his prosthetic metal hook touching soft baby skin.

“You feel before you see — they (the photographs) evoke a visceral response through the intensity of his gaze and the resultant compositions,” Dunn Marsh said.

It’s sometimes difficult for Richards to distance himself from his subjects and capture these distressing times because “you put yourself in the same situations that they’re in.”

“But I tell myself that it’s my job. And that doesn’t sound very romantic, but it is my job. A parallel might be other reporters, or social workers or doctors. If life was different they wouldn’t do this, but this is what their job is,” he said.

So he enters peoples’ homes, hospital rooms and funerals without preconceptions. And then he listens. “What people say directs you to the photograph. I try to make photographs that reflect what I’m hearing.”

Through his images, we can listen to individuals and their stories. The photographs aren’t about Richards and yet this communication is achieved through his remarkable skill, his self-effacement and his genuine interest in people.