By: Matthew White
Imagine that while you were away, a famous photographer illegally entered your house, armed to the teeth with professional photography equipment and a generous endowment from the New Yorker magazine to record high-quality images of your personal property and heirlooms, your bedroom, and your kitchen, only to leave and then rake in the bucks and the highest critical praise from the results. This is essentially what has been done by world-class landscape and architectural photographer Robert Polidori in his newly published, (just in time for Christmas), oversized photo collection, After the Flood.
A trip to the local Louisiana Barnes and Noble will usually involve a stop at the special table which displays a growing stack of books about Hurricane Katrina. These books began to appear almost immediately after the storm -- usually quickie high-drama photo books showing the flood and devastation -- which were followed by somewhat more streamlined journalistic books issued by CNN, Discovery, and the local press, along smaller paperback books telling personal stories of the storm. In the year or so that has followed, another type of Katrina book became more common -- the photo essay -- over-saturating the market with drab volumes of images of destruction, or before-and-after photos of well-known locations. In effect, the post-Katrina photo essay has become somewhat of a hurricane culture cliche --something familiar for people to grab onto in an effort to give meaning and explanation to the inexplicable.
A typical post-Katrina photo essay is usually centered on the woefully over-used image of something that is out-of-place: a child's toy lying in the mud; moldy family portraits still hanging on the wall of an Orleans Parish home; a small statue of Jesus making a benedictory gesture over a ruined property. The titles have a suspicious sameness to them: In the Wake of Katrina; In Katrina's Wake; Katrina:Aftermath of Disaster; Katrina: Disaster and Survival; Disaster: Hurricane Katrina and the Failure of Homeland Security; etc. The mother of all these books appears to be Polidori's. An extremely large (weighing over ten pounds) and handsomely bound book which lists for around $95, After the Flood is an overwrought study in voyeurism -- extremely well-photographed depictions of wrecked homes, moldy facades, and trashed personal possessions.
Polidori, one of the world's most respected and lionized living photographers, has previously photographed Chernobyl and Versailles among other subjects, and has had solo exhibitions of his work in many major galleries and museums, including most recently the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, who displayed the photos seen in this book. On a technical level, Polidori's work is impressive. The composition, sharpness and tone of his images is striking. On an aesthetic level, however, Polidori is way out-of-bounds -- he willfully stepped into homes that were not his, recorded what he saw, and is now profiting from the sale and presentation of it. While the Met touts his work as "quietly expressive," to me the prints appear cold, clinical, and pessimistic, as well as being a violation of the personal lives of people Polidori knows nothing about. For the more obsessive type, Polidori even provides the exact street addresses of the homes he photographed, should you care to drop by some time to see how things are going.
In a podcast interview, Polidori bemoaned the difficulty in carrying a large-format camera around New Orleans in stifling heat. Poor man. With what he has pocketed from this project, (Polidori lives in both New York and Paris), he could probably pay for the reconstruction of at least a few of the hundreds of destroyed homes he has photographed, and add central A/C.
After the Flood does not pay tribute to New Orleans, as Met curator Jeff L. Rosenheim insists -- it plunders it; it is an alarmingly thorough depiction of New Orleans at its worst; the equivalent of creating fine-art images of a dying alcoholic, or arriving uninvited to a funeral, photographing the deceased, displaying it for the world to see, and worse yet, calling it art and making money from it. Robert Polidori, the usually wise New Yorker, Steidl Publishing, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have, in fact, participated in a form of post-hurricane looting. What is sold as "silent testimony" seems more like a calculated attempt to personally profit from other's misery; they came, they took what they wanted, and left. Then they paid themselves.
In notes provided by Polidori's publisher, Steidl, Gerhard Druckerei und Verlag, the photographer justifies his intrusion of homes by basically saying that since the National Guard broke down the door first, it was OK for him to walk through:"All the places I went in, the doors were just open. They had been opened by what I collectively call 'the army,' of maybe 20 National Guards from New Hampshire, 15 policemen from Minneapolis, 20 firefighters from New York... On maybe half of them or a third of them that I went in, I think that the occupants had been there prior."
When Polidori states that he thinks that the homeowners may have come back to a third or a half of the houses before he arrived, he appears to be admitting that he did not seek their permission to photograph their property. Polidori also states that in the process of taking these photos, he encountered a dead body, to boot.
When New Orleanians evacuated in advance of Katrina, they locked their doors behind them. If members of the National Guard kicked those doors open in an attempt to save someone, it was a welcome intrusion. But Polidori barged in and took something very important to those affected by Katrina: privacy. He ignored the right of Katrina's victims to handle their devastation in their own time and in their own way. It is terrible to see the death of homes, dreams, and memories peddled as art. New Orleans did not need Polidori and will not benefit from his presence; he has made a narcissistic attempt to aggrandize himself by stealing from it.
In my research for this topic, I came across virtually no negative criticism of Polidori's project, although its price has been halved by Amazon, from what appears to be less-than-stellar sales. After all, who really would want to own an exhaustive collection of photos of destroyed houses? ("Merry Christmas, Mom!") But it seems that the art and photography critics will continue to praise the"directness of vision" in Polidori's work, while the former occupants of houses used as subject matter for Polidori's art have just spent their second holiday season in a row in a FEMA trailer.
Idea for a project: I will wait until Mr. Polidori has a terrible hangover. I will enter his house, unannounced, and I will carefully set up my large-format box camera. I will make the proper exposure when photographing his misery. Then I will sell it and give presentations on it, while my friends praise my directness of vision, book my publicity tour, and calculate the amount of my next grant.