Lost City: Portraits of New York Before 9/11 Changed Everything

2 minute read

Of all the world’s cities, New York is likely the most photographed. The Brooklyn Bridge; Times Square; Central Park; Coney Island; Harlem; the Lower East Side; the library’s lions; the Chrysler, Woolworth and Empire State buildings. It sometimes seems as if we’ve seen every possible view of the city—taken from every conceivable angle—and that there’s no way to really experience such a familiar place anew.

And then, out of the blue, we encounter a fresh way to appreciate the greatest city on earth—and we’re reminded, again, how variegated, how beautiful, New York really is.

In the early 1990s, at the urging of his long-time friends and gallerists, Phyllis Wrynn and Mitch Freidlin, a Bronx-born photographer named George Forss began to photograph New York from places—rooftops, towers, private balconies—to which very, very few people had access. Over the next decade, Forss created a remarkable chronicle of an unseen New York—a new New York—captured from unique vantage points. The resulting pictures, collectively known as “The Access Project,” offer unexpected glimpses of sights that we thought we knew, while re-envisioning and, in a sense, reinvigorating the world’s most iconic cityscape.

[This LIFE.com gallery features 15 of the “Access” photos. Find more here.]

Finally, it’s worth noting that Forss took his last “Access Project” pictures a year before the 2001 attack on the Twin Towers. Not only has New York been physically transformed in the decade and a half since Forss stopped seeking out singular and secret places from which to shoot, but the entire atmosphere of the country has changed. There is simply no way, for example, that Forss would be allowed to shoot from the air traffic control tower at JFK Airport simply because an acquaintance who worked for the Port Authority invited him up to check out the view.

In more ways than one, New York City—and America as a whole—is less free than it was 15 years ago. Seen in that light, George Forss’ pictures are both a celebration of, and an elegy for, a lost world.

Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com

George Forss (b. 1941) lives and works in Cambridge, New York. Visit him online at ForssBlog or at his Ginofor Gallery, and see and buy his work at Brooklyn’s Park Slope Gallery.

World Financial WTC/Uptown View, 1993; rooftop access from Bowling Green ©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Grand Central From 101 Park, 1998©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Close Encounter/ NY From Journal Square, 1995; New York from Journal Square, Jersey City, New Jersey©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
How to Buy a Brooklyn Brownstone, 1993; From Plaza Street ©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Towering Over JFK, 1993; from the Air Traffic Control Tower at JFK Airport©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
The Towers Stand Alone, 1998; from the Woolworth Building©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
The Old Custom House with Fabergé Egg, 1994; from an office on Water Street ©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Triple Exposure NYC, 1995; from Journal Square©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Plaza Street Panorama, 1993; from Plaza Street, Brooklyn ©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
The Chrysler Building From Pfizer, 1995; from the roof of the Pfizer Building©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
West 17th Street Looking Downtown/Time Exposure II, 1994; from a terrace on West 17th Street near 8th Avenue ©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Slice of Brooklyn With Skyline, 1994; from Turner Towers (on Eastern Parkway, across from the Brooklyn Museum)©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Empire State/Antique Market at 6th Avenue, 1994; from West 26th Street, 9th Floor©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
The City Glows, 1995; from One Pierrepont Street (Brooklyn Heights) rooftop©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery
Scale in NYC, 2000; from the Siegel-Cooper Building rooftop©George Forss/Park Slope Gallery

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com