“New Orleans, Lost & Found”, Art in America

New Orleans, lost & found

In a recent exhibition and book, Robert Polidori, known for making startling images of
architecture around the world, turns his camera on post-Katrina desolation.

by Marcia E. Vetrocq, ART IN AMERICA

Twenty years ago, when I was living in New Orleans, some of the livelier exchanges among architectural historians concerned pinning down the sources–Spanish, French, African, Caribbean–of the features creolized in the city’s domestic architecture, with its breeze-funneling floor plans, airy galleries, sheltered courtyards, congenial porches and prideful columns. That antediluvian debate seems a remote and genteel pastime now that hundreds of thousands have been driven from houses that were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina and the waters unleashed by the subsequent failure of the city’s levees. Judging by the photographs of Robert Polidori, New Orleans architecture today is more meaningfully contextualized by the mined homes of Havana and Pripyat, the workers’ town evacuated in the wake of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear plant.

Polidori arrived in New Orleans in September 2005, less than a month after Katrina struck. Then on assignment for the New Yorker, where he is a staff photographer, Polidori was moved to return on his own account the following year in January, March and April, staying for a period of two to three weeks each time. Methodical as a surveyor, advancing as the water retreated and the clean-up began, he amassed a pictorial inventory of the city’s shattered properties. Some buildings were documented in multiple views; each shot is annotated with a street address. The Montreal native had lived in New Orleans as a teenager from 1965 to 1967, and his old neighborhood, Gentilly, was one of the first he photographed. The Ninth Ward was the last. His systematic enterprise was the antithesis of the digitally enabled gonzo journalism encouraged by the city’s catastrophe, which found photographers capturing hazardous rescues, floating corpses and incidents of looting and police misconduct. Polidori favors a bulky, large-format camera and uses 5-by-7-inch sheet film custom cut by Kodak.

His preference for natural light, indoors and out, requires sustained exposures that may reach several minutes in duration.

The pictures have been gathered in the publication After the Flood, a solemn pictorial report on the ravaged Crescent City that follows Polidori’s previous volumes dedicated to the crumbling Cuban capital and the abandoned Ukrainian village. While the photographer was editing the book in Germany during the spring and early summer of 2006, Jeff L. Rosenheim, a curator of photography at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, sorted through ink-jet prints made from digital scans of the pictures and selected 24 images for an exhibition marking the first anniversary of the disaster. A few shots that Rosenheim initially desired proved unsuitable for enlargement. (The sizeable scans are actually reduced for reproduction in the book.) When “New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidor” opened at the Met last September, the show included a few compositions that didn”t make it into After the Flood, which, by the final cut, had reached upwards of 580 pictures in 330-plus pages.

Arguing the pros and cons of whether to show photographs on the walls of a gallery or between the covers of a book is as hoary a debate as the one about New Orleans”s architectural heritage. It involves considering the effects of scale, color quality, illumination, quantity and order. For this particular contest, however, the fix was in from the start. There was simply no way that the well-intended but small exhibition could approximate or condense the book”s narrative momentum, editorial sophistication and historical consequence.

Of the two dozen prints in “New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori,” 18 were accommodated in the Metropolitan’s two-room photo gallery; the remaining six hung nearby along one side of a broad, well-traveled hallway. Though the photographs were not arranged chronologically, wall labels noted the month in which each had been shot. Moreover, the passage of time could be felt in the shift from one picture’s tropical sky to another’s wintry blue and discerned in the changing conditions on the ground. View from St. Claude Avenue Bridge appears as picturesque as one of Winslow Homer’s watercolors of Tampa Bay, until you register the line of nearly submerged automobiles and realize that the lush foreground greenery is actually a stricken treetop lying in the water. It is September 2005. Photographed the following April, the property at 1498 Filmore Avenue has a FEMA trailer parked out front and a sign advertising the services of one Errol Bailey, tree cutter and house gutter, who offers the welcome but perhaps hollow reassurance, “No Job Too Large.”

The chromogenic prints are endowed with sonorous colors and a wealth of detail, although at 34 by 48 inches, they are far from the cornea-swelling magnitude favored by Andreas Gursky or Thomas Struth, nor are they even as large as the prints of Polidori’s pictures of Pripyat and Chernobyl (50 by 60 inches), which were concurrently on view in New York at Edwynn Honk Gallery. The scale chosen, in short, is intimate enough to preclude bombast and generous enough for Polidori’s old-master-worthy command of composition to pay off. In Industrial Canal Breach, Reynes Street, for example, the flooded foreground stretches from left to right, situating us in the prow of a low boat. At the far end of the debris-banked street, down the allee of staunch trees and listing telephone poles, the vanishing point is marked by a little rise of land with a sunlit facade and a car with bright headlights. The scene has the wholesome tranquility and dew-rinsed clarity of a Dedham Vale painting by Constable, and we half expect to find a horse-drawn milk cart making its way to a shallow crossing.

Installed in the Met, the prints were consistently absorbing–sometimes harrowing–yet they also seemed, paradoxically, detached and repurposed, like film stills. A melodramatic encounter was forced with the pairing of two photographs on one short wall. 5526 Chatham Street is a close-up of nursery wallpaper whose repeated pattern features Noah’s flock two-by-twoing from the ark to the dry, forgiven earth. The picture was hung beside 6525 Wuerpel Street, where the interior walls have been stripped down to their slender wooden supports, and the aftermath of the clean-up looks as bone-chilling as the inside of a tomb. The cradle-to-grave scenario was needlessly heavy-handed. By contrast, 2600 Block of Munster Boulevard, showing a couple of vehicles with their rear ends propped up against some one-story homes, seems a rather negligible choice, though perhaps its arty merit was associative: the composition echoes, weirdly enough, the angled cars half-buried in the ground in the much-photographed Ant Farm installation Cadillac Ranch (1974).

Compared to the publication (which was on hand in the museum for consultation), the Met’s trim exhibition featured proportionally more interiors while excluding Polidori’s views of relatively affluent homes. Also unrepresented were the book’s punctuating shots of a supermarket, a laundromat, a church, a local restaurant, a hair salon–all of which serve, in the book as in life, to make neighborhoods out of houses and a community out of individuals.

To be sure, the sodden and crazed interiors do present the most shocking evidence of lives interrupted. Entering homes left open by rescue teams, Polidori photographed swamped and battered furniture, thriving colonies of mold, rotting books and videos, and moisture-laden ceiling fans hanging limp as Dali’s clocks. Everything, but everything, has been coated with mud in the dim brown bedroom of 6328 North Miro Street. In 5000 Cartier Avenue, the parlor”s rather fresh-looking tomato-red walls, a length of tape trailing from the dazzling white ceiling and what appears to be a tub of spackle together suggest that Katrina arrived toward the end of an unfortunately timed round of home improvements.

The inevitable rush of sympathy and pity elicited by these pictures is soon joined by a forensic impulse. We scan the wreckage with accumulating questions about the residents’ lives, their shoes and hobbies, the souvenirs they collected and the fancy chandeliers they prized. There are questions, too, about income and race, poverty and destiny, all of which may be a rational refuge from the overwhelming urgency of the real mystery: what on earth has become of the people?

It must be Polidori’s innate discretion–that and the sheer intelligence of each picture–which keeps any hint of gross intrusion at bay. Without lessening its expression of genuine suffering, the storm-induced chaos of 1401 Pressburg Street also evokes the heretofore impossible space of a Cubist interior, one that comes fully equipped as a memento mori. We find an overturned chair, a broken clock and a serendipitous still life on a low table whose ingredients a 17th-century Dutch painter could not improve upon: upended flowers, a candle, a menu, a broken telephone, a copy of Life magazine. Each of the senses is summoned and dismissed. The living have left the building.

To turn from the exhibition to the publication is to reckon first with the imposing physical presence of After the Flood. It’s as if Polidori intended the book’s morbid weight to ensure that the photos could not be consulted cavalierly, as if the precarious binding-plainly too frail for so many pages–were somehow an extension of the helplessness pictured within. The book’s basic conceptual unit is not the single picture but the two-page spread. These diptychs serve as the building blocks of the visual essays and episodes, extended groupings of pictures based on theme or location, that constitute the whole.

After the Flood opens with six panoramas of a watery New Orleans shot from the St. Claude Avenue bridge, then travels down streets and into homes, sometimes pausing at a given address for a space-rendering series of pictures that may record Polidori’s circuit around the perimeter of the property or his gradual turning within a room. We are taken in for a close-up of a helter-skelter kitchen sink or an outraged-looking soap dish, then escorted away. It’s not irrelevant that Polidori was a film student. While the show at the Metropolitan could feel like a rarefied collection of stills, After the Flood has been edited to convey something of the mobility and duration of film itself.

To ramp up the book’s payload of information, some of the pages are printed with 16-image grids (Polidori calls these “mosaics”) of houses and trailers. The format lies provocatively between the contact proof, a realtor”s listings and a sheet of commemorative stamps. There is a coda, too: a final pair of horizonless shots of the wet earth and dead grasses of Bayou Bienvenue on the Orleans Parish border. We are outside the city and in another habitat beaten by the weather and betrayed by engineers. To invoke the religious resonance of the book”s title, the operative are here is not ashes to ashes but water to water.

The largest series of grids, 15 consecutive pages that grimly tally up 240 afflicted houses, is bracketed by photographs whose subjects are unique in the book. The grids are preceded by the only interior that includes a corpse, a body laid out on a bed and left behind by a search crew. The photo faces a view of the victim’s home, 2606 St. Peter Street, on whose facade we see the spray-painted record of the visits paid by the various authorities. The last grid page here is paired with the book’s sole aerial view, which shows several blocks of the Ninth Ward flattened to a debris field. The complete sequence–house/corpse/grids/neighborhood-occurs roughly midway through the book, and it effectively communicates the responsibility faced by Polidori to balance the stories of the many with the story of one.

The previous show presented in the Met’s photography gallery was a tribute to the late Susan Sontag. Even without that connection, it would have been hard to view Polidori’s New Orleans photographs, in the museum or his book, without being reminded of the writer’s final long essay, Regarding the Pain of Others. Sontag was chiefly concerned with images of bodies, military or civilian, wounded and violated during times of conflict, yet she noted, “To be sure, a cityscape is not made of flesh. Still, sheared-off buildings are almost as eloquent as bodies in the street.”

In Polidori’s record of the destruction of New Orleans, the buildings are the bodies in the street, visible proxies for the people whose anguish is ongoing, albeit endured elsewhere. New Orleans, it should be remembered, is not our Pompeii, as some have suggested. The disaster was neither entirely natural nor entirely unforeseen, and the full human tragedy is suggested not by the death toll (currently estimated at roughly 720 in Orleans Parish) but by the staggering number of citizens, nearly a quarter of a million, torn from their homes and dispersed in a form of internal exile.

Sontag brooded justifiably about the capacity of art to estheticize pain and anaesthetize the viewer, inducing a condition of righteous but impotent compassion. And she pointed to the dubious contribution of journalists, “those professional, specialized tourists,” who allow us to become spectators of calamities far away. The ever-present risk that his project of documentation could shade into exploitation may have been on Polidori’s mind when he chose to include 1728 Deslondes Street in his book. Against the tire of an overturned sedan, one New Orleanian, tired of having his pain regarded by others, has propped a sign that reads “Tourism here is Profane!”

In the end, Polidori’s is a deeply moral project. Grave and authoritative on its own, After the Flood reaches back to enlist the Havana and Pripyat/Chernobyl volumes in a trilogy that details community and environmental peril. Through the progression of views from the first site to the third, the residual beauty of decaying buildings is succeeded by outright devastation, the fruit of bureaucratic intransigence and neglect give way to the consequences of a government’s depraved indifference, and the residents–who have had little say in the circumstances that sealed their fates–go from presiding resiliently in their diminished shelters to vanishing utterly. The sheer numerical extravagance of this photographic witnessing conveys the enormity of the loss as well as the power of Polidori’s fierce attentiveness.