The photographer Robert Polidori describes his experience depicting the loss and pathos of a civilization in chaos in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Jeff Rosenheim: Hello, my name is Jeff Rosenheim. I'm an associate curator at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Department of Photographs, and to commemorate the first anniversary of the devastating hurricane that struck New Orleans and the surrounding area last year on August 29—that is, 2005—I invited the renowned photographer Robert Polidori, who had made photographs beginning late in that month, to show that work to me.
Immediately after the hurricane and the flooding that followed, New Orleans suffered great losses. Polidori's photographs of rotting wallboard, of tumbled furniture, of rooms caked with mud, of houses that became unwieldy boats that floated off their moorings, these photographs of the interiors and exteriors of 160,000 homes is the subject of Polidori's recent work.
As one of the finest photographers working with the camera in New Orleans after Katrina, the photographs offer a stunning testimony of civilization in chaos, of widespread urban ruin that few have seen, except those who have been in wartorn areas. The effect of disintegration, of chaos, of a society in collapse is revealed in these photographs, filled with pathos. The purpose of the photographs is to remind us that New Orleans is still there, to encourage people to pay attention to the effects of global warming, and to look at how the camera—in a very specific way—how the camera can record the social facts of our time in ways that no other medium really can.
New Orleans after the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori is on view at The Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 19 to December 10, 2006. The photographs in the exhibition are also included in Robert Polidori's new book, After the Flood, published by Steidl and released in September 2006.
What follows are excerpts from a conversation I had recently with Robert Polidori about his work in New Orleans and how he made it.
Robert Polidori: Strangely enough, I was on my way to Dubai, on assignment. I had heard about a largest hurricane of thirty years moving into the Gulf, etc., and I was sitting at the airport lounge watching it on CNN and it looked, like, bigger than, like, three states, and it looked like it was going to be a bull's-eye. And I thought, oh my God.
And then the next couple days came all the reports about the flooding. And I knew then I had to go. I don't know why. I mean, maybe it's the fact that I lived there for a few years. But also it's because I just knew that this would be a significant event in the perceived history of global warming.
You know, it's funny—all these kinds of feelings I have more, like, after the fact. I'm not a courageous guy by nature. You know, I got out of the army and all of that. But for some reason I want shots so much it gives me a kind of a mindless, yet not too reckless, kind of courage. And that courage comes from not thinking about it but only concentrating on what I think that I have to do to get the shot.
So basically, I take images of historical events, but that's only the backdrop for the kind of subject matter, which is about psychological loss, pathos, and a kind of paradox.
The purpose of the book is to try to give some reflection to all the individual lives that have been irrevocably changed by this. And these houses—they'll never live again. To me, a house is
like an exoskeleton of a person's life. And these are exoskeletons that have been shed. They'll never be used again. I mean, you have to rebuild them. You have to rebuild a whole economy.
I remember reading what the etymology of "economy" is. It comes from "oicos"—in Greek, means "house." So it's the measurement of houses. A city, collection of houses. They're like nests. They're like huge nesting areas. And I think there's a kind of collective soul about the whole thing. Because, like, ultimately, the only spiritual aspect to my work is about trying to reveal a kind of soul life and what interests me in interiors is that this is where individuals exteriorize their internal values by what they place on the walls, on the floor, of their houses, and what they do there. It's the materialization of the internal life.
To me, to take a photograph is work, and it should look better than what I saw, or else why bother? Then just for my own good, I could just walk through and just look.
I use long exposure and I don't use lighting. I prefer natural light because I think that lighting changes the nature of the scene. Because I'm more a sociologist. I'm not trying to make it idealized; trying to make it—impose a vision of what I think it should look like. I'm not doing a makeover. I'm interested in revealing what is there.
I like this quote that I recently ran across by Dieter Appelt, a German artist, who said that the snapshot—l'instant donné—is a portrait of a moment that will never re-occur, or occur again, and that the long exposure is a moment that never transpired. And what I like about the long exposure is somehow it's closer to, kind of, spirit photography. It starts to render things that are not so readily perceived by the eye right off the bat and you see them better. Because I can tell you, some of these interiors were extremely dim. And I took 500-, 600-, 700-second exposures. And when I print them I make them look like almost normal lighting. But in reality, they were three, four stops or times darker than what we see in the printed image.
I have no shame, I don't think it's wrong to do this. I'm simply trying to make something visible. The thing and the image of the thing is not the same thing. Is that in contradiction to the fact that I'm trying to reveal some truth? I don't know. At the same time, I'm trying to learn what is there. For me, photography is a process of revelation. I want truth to be revealed to me and to us. That's why I do it. It's a constant learning process about the world. I would say, I have certain personal bents, like these tragedy or loss things, for some reason. I like layers of time and the perception of that. But I'm in love with the world.