The November 30, 2006 edition of The New York Review of Books contains an article by author John Updike about Robert Polidori’s newly released After the Flood. Given my unease about the flood (no pun intended really) of fine-art photography from the region affected by Hurricane Katrina I was hoping that maybe someone like John Updike would be able to help me out a little bit. Unfortunately, I am not so sure that actually happened.
The article might disappear behind a pay-to-view wall in a little while, so it’s worthwhile t quote the most important bits (or, probably more accurately, the bits that I think are most important). There are lots of descriptions of photos in the book, which, it seems, serve very little purpose other than telling a reader, who is not going to buy the book, what the photos actually show.
It does get interesting right after those descriptions (and the obligatory Susan Sontag quote). Mr Updike writes “After the Flood is an opulent volume, brilliantly sharp in its large, ten-by-fourteen-inch reproductions, bound in lavender cloth, and difficult to manipulate anywhere but on a coffee table. It weighs nearly ten pounds and costs $90; a consumeristic paradox hovers over the existence of so costly a volume portraying the reduction of a mostly poor urban area […] to a state of desertion and deeper destitution. Who is this book for? Not the flood’s victims, who could not afford it. Nor, one suspects, very many well-heeled connoisseurs of fine photography, though there is an abstract beauty in Polidori’s close-focus studies of patterns of mold and paint distress, and an occasional Pop humor in the tinselly shoes and glitzy wall decorations the victims left behind them as the floodwaters rose, and a macabre Art Brut in shadowy rooms crowded with cheap furniture as tightly as passengers in a sinking ship.” There are some cringe-worthy aspects in this paragraph (“occasional Pop humor in the tinselly shoes and glitzy wall decorations the victims left behind them”), and since it doesn’t appear to answer the question posed, Mr Updike continues “As it happens, another enigmatically magnificent album of photographs is also on the market these days - Aftermath, by Joel Meyerowitz, an extensive, big-format pictorial record of the cleanup of the World Trade Center site […] It is for our children and our grandchildren - for the historical record - that Meyerowitz and Polidori zealously labored over many months to capture on film […] the aftermaths of the two most spectacular disasters on American soil in this young century. This is what it looked like; this is what we don’t want to happen again.”
So that is it? Nothing for us spectators in the present? I don’t know about you, but I find that a bit unsatisfying, and it doesn’t really address my unease, in particular, since Mr Updike appears to fall into a trap known from war photography. Contrary to all the claims, war photography has not made wars less common or harder to start (as we just learned yet another time). So why should we believe that disasters especially like Hurricane Katrina, with all their various man-made bits, will not happen again just because we know what they look like?
My point here, to make that clear, is not that I don’t want any Hurricane Katrina photography, or that I think that Robert Polidori’s work is bad (it is in fact admirably exquisit). What I am mainly concerned about is what we turn Hurricane Katrina - and what happened to so many people (of which, as Mr Updike notes, maybe up to 200,000 will not return to the region) - into if our information from the region comes mainly from fine-art galleries and/or museums.