Editor’s note: TODAY show viewers and TODAYshow.com readers have asked to revisit some classic American Stories with Bob Dotson. This one, on the Statue of Liberty’s official photographer, aired July 1, 1983, during the statue’s restoration. This July 4 weekend, Lady Liberty’s crown of reopens to the public for the first time since the Sept. 11 attacks.
Gulls pumped past us into the rising sun. Boats grumbled below. Feet shifted. The aluminum ladder shook, and a face peered down.
Clutching tightly to the rung, I closed my eyes. “Sure.”
I was lying.
I had pursued many American dreams for the TODAY show, but this was more of a nightmare. We were suspended 12 stories above New York Harbor on a thin metal ladder tilted between the pedestal and the big toe of the Statue of Liberty.
Behind us, the sun began to burn through a dirty ashtray sky. The morning’s boatload of tourists scurried up the pier. We inched on.
“Give me your hand.”
I looked up. The statue’s moss-colored gown was riddled with rust. My partner in this craziness held me tightly while I threw my leg over a broken chain at the base of the statue.
“Careful. She gives underfoot.”
I took a tentative step. Her copper skin was as dry as old canoes.
I lurched around the ladder and grabbed the statue’s big toe. It was the size of a couch.
“Oh, wow! Look at the tourists down there.”
I was too busy. Hugging.
A sound like crickets. We peeked over the toenail. Hundreds of people were taking pictures.
“Help me with the pole.” My fellow adventurer twirled a camera onto the end of a small rod and telescoped it 17 feet out over the edge. A fine thread ran from the shutter button to an assistant below. “Fire!”
“Oh, that’s nice.”
Peter B. Kaplan is well known for these daredevil shots: He has taken photos atop the TV tower of the Empire State Building and suspended beneath the Brooklyn Bridge. Now the National Park Service was allowing him to go where no other photographer had gone before.
He had hung from Liberty’s torch; shot from the tablet tucked in her arms; crawled over her crown. Kaplan’s pictures of Lady Liberty’s many moods taken from remarkable positions raised money for the statue’s restoration 26 years ago.
Video: TODAY at the Statue of Liberty “I’ve been injured only once,” he said with a smile, scuttling back from the edge. “In a fall from a folding chair, taking wedding pictures.”
This assignment would be his most difficult. “When I go into the torch,” he said, settling onto the toe, “sometimes it can be cruel as hell. The arm sways seven feet in the wind. Going up hand over hand, the wind shifts and the whole arm goes ‘bong!’
“I’ve almost lost my fingers from the cold up there,” he added, bringing his camera to his eye. “But the view — oh, that view is beautiful.”
You could fill an ocean liner with the number of people who take the Statue’s picture each day. It is a vision of America overlaid many times. But Kaplan is looking for what has not yet been seen.
“We’re sitting here on her toe,” he said, stroking the statue’s ankle. “Who would ever dream we’d be sitting on the statue’s toes? I feel I’m a part of her, almost.”
Video: Climb to the crown of Lady Liberty Our eyes lingered on the New York skyline. “Most people call this place a jungle,” he said softly. “I call it a jungle gym.”
Kaplan dipped around Liberty’s dress. The folds had holes large enough to take pictures through, so he did. Where he stood that day a quarter-century ago, rivets were rotting out. Wind and salt and time had taken their toll.
“I don’t know how she’s survived,” he sighed.
But Lady Liberty has survived, because a young French engineer figured a way to hang each copper section independently so none would weigh on its neighbor. The young man was so successful, folks in Paris asked him to build a tower for them.
Mr. Eiffel said he would.
Raising the torch
Liberty was a gift to America from Frederic Auguste Bartholdi. He fashioned the statue’s face in the image of his mother. The arms were modeled after his wife’s, and the soul he found in all of us.
Liberty’s raised her torch just as America opened wide its shores. Today eight out of 10 of us have ancestors who first saw America beneath that torch. They journeyed a troubled road, dreading the darkness. They passed a gentle mother who held up hope.
Video: Statue of Liberty will reopen July 4 Not every immigrant found success, but the wilderness beyond that torch was part of their geography of hope. Forty-five thousand sunsets have colored New York harbor in the years since the statue was built, yet she still stands — a kind of national conscience — welcoming, sheltering. The Statue of Liberty has become an enduring monument to what could be.
“I think the broken chains attracted me to the statue more than anything else,” said Kaplan, stepping over the shattered shackles at Lady Liberty’s feet. “Liberty tramping over tyranny.”
He started down the ladder. “I thought I might get bored. She’s so familiar, but I just watch the people. They never stop coming.”
For 40 years now I have crisscrossed the country, seeking people like Peter B. Kaplan, people who see things we might miss, even standing next to them. I believe they mirror our lives and our heritage and help us to understand ourselves better.
Peter B. Kaplan’s images of the Statue of Liberty will be on display at Gallery 919 Market in Wilmington, Del., July 3-31; for more information, call 302-229-3266.
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