“To take a photograph,” wrote Susan Sontag, “is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt. This is true of Polidori’s entire body of work…
A Photographer of ruins in search of lost time and forgotten memories.
The rooms we inhabit bear traces of our presence, and those traces, in turn, tell our stories.
By the time Robert Polidori photographed Apartment #3 at 642 East 14th Street, in 1985, the place was a mess, as if shaken by a bartender. Amidst the chaos captured in the long-exposure, one discerns a miniature plastic Christmas tree and the tangled lights perhaps meant to adorn it; a bicycle pump; an iron; a ball of burgundy knitting yarn; two televisions (one used as a stand for the other); a hefty tome of “Steadman’s Medical Dictionary”; a broom; and an overstuffed dresser, above which lies a camera and what appears to be a rosary.
Viewed through Polidori’s apparatus, the room seems to mourn its deceased occupant, whose memory-filled possessions, vandalized for fun by a gang of teenagers, turn into anonymous stuff. And yet, through this shattered collection of discarded objects we glean a refracted portrait of the apartment’s former inhabitant. As the French-Canadian photographer explained from his Tribeca studio, “you know more about a person from seeing how they live in their interiors than you do by looking at their faces.”
Knowingly or not, we inscribe our autobiographies in the rooms we inhabit, an insight at the center of Polidori’s artistic output. Whether photographing bombed-out buildings in post-war Beirut or decaying homes in New Orleans after Katrina, Polidori has time and again turned his aestheticizing gaze towards spaces devoid of human life, yet filled with human stories waiting to be told.
The Salon of Cuban aristocrat Señora Faxas speaks volumes. Photographed by Polidori in 1997, Mrs. Faxas’ drawing room is cracked and moldy along its walls as if to lament the decaying fortune of an aging patrician. Towers of dusty books blanket a large desk, suggesting erudition but also claustrophobia within once-majestic quarters. Large oil paintings of a hunting scene and reclining nude would evoke opulence, were they not ripped, damaged by passing time and dwindling wealth. Decomposing surfaces, ruined furniture, and neglected chandeliers reveal who Señora Faxas is, but also – and even more so – who Señora Faxas wants others to think she is: an aristocrat living among the magnificent ruins of a long-gone era.
Polidori has made a career out of photographing rooms that condense within four walls layers of memory, past and present. Personal spaces, like Señora Faxas’ drawing room, but also public ones – abandoned schoolrooms, for example, in the nuclear ghost town Pripyat. Built in 1970 to house workers from the Chernobyl power plant, Pirpyat has, since the nuclear catastrophe of 1986, exhibited on its spoiled structures the bruises of abandonment. These bruises are manifest in Polidori’s photograph of a kindergarten classroom. In that image, behind overturned desks filled with dust, a toy truck embodies the childhoods derailed by the nuclear leak. The disaster itself is evoked by a gasmask in an adjacent classroom visible through a doorway. A military hat calls to mind the governmental mismanagement following the accident, and a propaganda image of a boy and girl paying respects to Lenin hangs like a religious icon before a peeling red blackboard. In the context of Polidori’s picture, captured over a decade after the disbanding of the Soviet Union, these objects narrate the evolution and dissolution of an empire which built Pripyat as a sparkling example of its modernity, only to crumble twenty years later, in part because of the glasnost catalyzed by the disaster at Chernobyl.
The officer’s hat, the gas mask, the toy truck, the overturned desk, the Lenin poster – like the torn paintings in Señora Faxas’ salon, or the knitting yarn in the 14th Street apartment – function as archaeological traces of lost lives. Together they condense into single photographs the many stages of time passed. “The paradox of the labor of photography,” says Polidori, “is to deliver up to some surface an epitome of something that occurred as an instant in the continuum of time, and to somehow how have it represent all of time.”
This fascination with time and timelessness characterizes Polidori’s photographs of the palace at Versailles. Taken over a period of 27 years, the pictures explore transitory moments in the renovation of the chateau, when soon-to-be-pristine royal chambers still resemble construction sites. In one picture, white stucco walls share the frame with a state of the art security camera and the bright red trigger of a fire alarm. In another, period wall motifs are obscured by wood and styrofoam propped into makeshift scaffoldings, and pushed against a mold-stained ceiling. These intrusions of modern materials and unsightly decay in rooms that otherwise evoke a lavish past establish Polidori’s ironic distance from the process of re-creation. His photographs spurn the very pretense of historical accuracy, instead asking what it means to restore a room in the first place.
Between 1682, when Louis XIV converted his hunting lodge into what would become the royal residence, and the present day, when three million tourists visit the chateau each year, Versailles has undergone perpetual transformations. Through the reigns of three monarchs, revolutionaries, Napoleon, and beyond, the palace has been redecorated and repurposed in accordance with epochal trends. Portraits of new royals replaced those of predecessors, wallpaper changed to reflect popular tastes, and security cameras and fire alarms were installed as safety measures.
Times changed at Versailles, and time passed – so suggests Robert Lefèvre’s 1806 portrait of Napoleon, as photographed by Polidori in 2009. On the canvas, the emperor poses in full regalia, with a gaze of indestructibility. Yet viewed up close, Napoleon’s likeness, damaged by the slow drip of centuries, appears no less fragile than the dusty objects scattered across Pripyat’s classroom. The thick coat of paint used to immortalize the leader cracks like dry desert land after drought. Polidori’s focus on the decaying icon intimates the fragility of power, and, on a deeper level, the shortness of life. Like the Sun King whose presence haunts the hallways of Versailles, Napoleon is long gone. If he survives, it is only on damaged canvases and in our collective memory.
“To take a photograph,” wrote Susan Sontag, “is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This is true of Polidori’s entire body of work, and especially of his most recent project, which consists, for the first time in his career, of human portraits. To stage them, Polidori tells his subjects to pose for a Polaroid photograph, which they then hold in their hands for a second portrait. The final image portrays the subject holding a photograph of himself. The person in both images is the same, yet the presence of the Polaroid reminds us that one is closer to death than the other. Polidori thus stages a double-moment, in which the subject himself, and also the viewer, is reminded of everything and everyone’s inevitable march towards nonexistence. “Decay,” he likes to say, quoting the Buddha’s dying words, “is inherent to all composite things.”
Following Yves Saint Laurent’s death in 2009, Polidori photographed the designer’s art collection packed away for an auction at the Grand Palais. Though Saint Laurent’s fame and wealth guarantees an after-life for his belongings, “the result,” Polidori says, “ends up being the same.” Objects lose their meaning, and the memories attached to them fade away. As W.G. Sebald wrote in his last novel, Austerlitz,
“The darkness does not lift but becomes yet heavier as I think how little we can hold in mind, how everything is constantly lapsing into oblivion with every extinguished life, how the world is, as it were, draining itself, in that the history of countless places and objects which themselves had no power of memory is never heard, never described or passed on.”
If Polidori’s photographs serve as funerary images for lost memories, they do so in the service of a larger intellectual project. “There is a utilitarian aspect to my work: it serves memory,” he concedes. “But I deal with the highest or most esoteric reaches of what that means. I explore historical, sociological, psychological, even philosophical notions.” “Historical,” “sociological,” “psychological,” “philosophical” – these adjectives recur when Polidori describes his work, and for good reason. His photography, like these disciplines, is inherently inquisitive.
Where do we come from? What kind of society do we live in? Where are we heading? These questions are raised by Polidori’s 2001 photograph of an archaeological site in Alexandria, Egypt. In the picture, a dig lies underground, surrounded by roaming chickens, shanty structures, and local residents. Jutting out from the horizon, a highway reaches a dead end where the historical site begins. As in most of Polidori’s pictures, traces of past and future clash in a present landscape, suggesting, however ineffably, where we come from, how we live, and where we are heading. “Where you point the camera is a question,” Polidori says, “and the image you get is a kind of answer.”
The GROUND issue #02