After Hours: TIME’s ‘Top of America’ Photo a Labor of Love
After Hours: TIME’s ‘Top of America’ Photo a Labor of Love

Jonathan D. Woods didn’t tell his mom he was planning to climb to the top of the 1,776-foot One World Trade Center. The TIME.com photo editor ultimately spent one year on the project that involved 100 people in 14 organizations.

The result is magnificent: a one-of-a-kind, 360-degree photograph of New York City from the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere. It’s also symbolic of New York City’s resilience in rebuilding after the 9/11 attacks destroyed the twin towers.

Kira Pollack, director of photography and visual enterprise at TIME, worked with Woods on the project from the day he pitched it. She said that what started out as a pitch for TIME’s photography website, Lightbox, became an “epic project.”

“It was historic in many ways,” said Pollack in a talk about the photo with Woods at Aperture in Manhattan on Tuesday.

The final photo was the springboard for a cover story in the magazine’s March 2014 edition, the subject of a feature film, and led to a microsite about the redevelopment of Lower Manhattan after 9/11. The magazine with the photo on the cover was published the same day as TIME.com’s relaunch.

It was created in partnership with Gigapan, a company that specializes in high-resolution, panoramic photography.

According to Woods’s account of the process, none of it was easy. He scouted the location by boat and land and mapped out a plan for how he’d take the photos. Then there was the minor detail of actually getting access.

“I realized I had this mountain in front of me, which was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey,” said Woods, of the entity that governs One World Trade Center. Woods said they basically hung up on him the first time he called to propose the project.

Eventually, though, through a long series of meetings to discuss how everything would be carried out, including with insurance waivers, Woods and his team got the final go ahead.

The actual implementation was complicated. A test run from the highest bridge in Portland completely failed, and there would be only one chance to get it right. There was 175 pounds of gear to carry up. Woods and his partner from Gigapan had to plan everything they’d take up for the five-hour shoot down to the granola bar.

“One of the coolest things about this project was looking out and seeing planes and helicopters below us,” said Woods of the Sept. 28, 2013, climb. “It was one of the highlights of my life.” Aside from the windburn from the 25 MPH winds. But for him, it was worth it.

They extended a 13-foot, custom-welded jib from the building’s spire with a camera attached. The result in print is a stunning, three-panel panorama that shows much of Manhattan, as well as Queens, the Bronx, and Brooklyn in the distance. The online version is interactive and allows users to pan the skyline and zoom in to street level.

“We wanted to see all the iconic things of New York,” said Woods. “I wanted to share that view with everyone.”

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