New Orleans After the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori
5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans September 2005 "The shape of a city, as we all know, changes more rapidly than the heart of a mortal." --Julien Gracq
Whether you are a New Orleans native or have lived or vacationed there, or whether, like so many people have said to me over the past fourteen months, "always planned to get down there," Robert Polidori's photography exhibit, "After the Flood", showing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art from September 19 through December 10 in the Howard Gilman Gallery, will offer you not what you knew there nor what you loved there, and it will not present what you dreamed of finding there prior to Hurricane Katrina or what you expect to find there now. It offers, instead, a shockingly intimate, and yet unadorned, landscape of what absence remains.
I left New Orleans to move to New York City just weeks before Hurricane Katrina's devastation began on August 29, 2005. I say "began" because, as Polidori's exhibit so wrenchingly evinces, the rotting destitution and dissolution of the city continues. It still exists, down in the crotch of America, where the nostalgic Mississippi River lets loose its waste. It is there, and people live there -- although more than half of the New Orleanians relocated in the Katrina Diaspora have still not returned to their homes. Yet the tragedy is not treated as a diaspora, because the people who cannot and will not return are those who do not have the means to do so, those whose homes are still bloated and broken, those whose neighborhoods are tangled in wire and speared by broken wood. While the Katrina anniversary was covered in the New York Times and memorialized on a few television shows, the focus seems to be on the local and governmental administrations' failure to prevent the extent of devastation. This acknowledgment bears no resemblance to that of other national disasters. The New Orleanian relocated to Texas or New York or Missouri, or back living in her re-roofed shotgun in the Marigny, or moved uptown with his family to a two bedroom shotgun costing three times the rent Pre-K, will ask him or herself some very simple questions. What happened to Vira Jones? What of Terrell Whittaker? What of Shelley Ivory and her baby? What of these people? I'm talking about the African-American population that once made up 70 percent of the city's population, so celebrated in the jazz and cultural history of the city, so claimed by the nation as American idols in the faces of Louis Armstrong and Fats Domino. But what of the homes of this population? What of their lives?
5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans September 2005
Polidori's excavatory series of landscapes displays the bleak answers to these questions and asks more questions to boot. He accomplishes his job as an artist and historian; using natural light and long exposures, he records what is left of the city without commentary, without advertisement. The titles of the individual photos bear only the name of location and the date of the shoot: from September 2005 through April 2006. "After the Flood" forces us to face what has not been done, what we are already forgetting as a nation, what we are afraid to look at. When I returned to New Orleans for the first time since the flood, a friend drove me around the city on his motorcycle on Lundi Gras Day. It was perfect Mardi Gras weather, which you can only know if you've been there, and although I was confronted with what Polidori has shown me, I dared not look. I tried again; I crossed the narrow bridge to the Lower Ninth Ward in my sister's car, crept a couple blocks up and looked at the spray painted houses, the enormous oak tree flipped on top of a house, the roots shot into the air. I felt parasitic; my camera lay on the passenger seat. I turned around and went back to the French Quarter, where things still looked the same.
But standing at the Met, facing the insides of the houses of New Orleans, confronted with the vibrant, eerie colors of the otherwise faded and bloated houses, I found that this time, 1,300 miles away, I had to face what had happened to my home. The photos beg you to keep looking. One can pass by, shake his head, move on quickly, and when walking out, exhale a long held-in breath. One can still do this kind of thing. But if you stay, if you will look closer, and closer, and closer still, you will see the articles of the lives of the city's lost inhabitants. A graduation cap pinned to an archway, a portrait of a bold-eyed woman in military attire, a hat decorated with grapes and flowers, perhaps for the Easter Parade. And closer still: a Hibernia bank statement pasted forever to a kitchen table, a plastic basket filled with take-out condiments, a rubber ducky squatting on an igloo cooler. A woman's pair of red pumps, some Mardi Gras beads still sparkling in a broken window, a child-sized Saints cap pierced through a wooden headboard, jacked diagonally between wall and disintegrating mattress. In one photograph of ruin, a Southern Comfort label remains tacked to the wall, unharmed.
5000 Cartier Avenue, New Orleans September 2005
What is both enthralling and wrenching in Polidori's work is that one cannot pass by without looking. It is participatory: it elicits a reaction from the viewer with its boldness, with the lines drawn by unexpected angles, such as in "Corner Odin and St. Roch Avenue, September 2005," where a useless black telephone wire cuts diagonally across a shot of rubble and chopped oak. In "St. Claude Avenue Bridge, September 2005," you can almost feel the wind pulling and bending the palmetto bushes and the trees. The images are so symbolic -- a mailbox centered around a crushed school bus, a girl's dress hung on a white bedpost, a folding chair that people use to watch the parades on the neutral ground -- that one can imagine that the objects have carefully arranged themselves to fit the canvas of loss. The paintings have a certain blueness about them, a subterranean quality, a slanting, as if the objects are being sent over a waterfall or cliff. The spilled remains of a desk, a broken arm of a coffee cup, a cheap chandelier so common to the apartments in New Orleans, somehow made more beautiful by its infirmity. But one cannot pass by without pausing to think: who slept in that bed, who was confined to that wheelchair, who has read and loved these bloated, blackened books? Who watched the Saint Anne's Parade on Mardi Gras morning from this Frenchmen Street window? Who, and where is she, and why did he leave his hat?
Even in the most dismal shots in this series of landscapes, the viewer is awakened to find a pink ribbon tied to a spike of wood that once was a front porch, an overturned potted plant still in bloom, a Life magazine with a blotch of blue in the center, surrounded by mold. The mold itself is spectacular -- sometimes in drops like colored wax, or treelike in its reaching veins like the limbs of sprawling oak trees. We perceive what were once the comforts of home, now stricken with disease. The overturned furniture leaves a sense of violence that clashes with these textures, these fabrics of lives.
Upon returning to her gutted apartment, my best friend was given a paper bag sagging with the few things salvaged from her Broadmore apartment: a stick of incense, a bowl, two wine glasses, the dried roses from her first date. In Polidori's photos, while confronted by this tremendous sense of loss and despair, if you look closer, you will find pieces of the people that somehow lead to a ripe -- though abortive -- sense of hope. It is a hope so willed and swelling -- in a high school diploma hanging from a red wall, the paint peeled and bubbling, or in an embroidered "God Bless This Home" plaque -- that it immediately dies within you once you step back and see the full picture. Come closer, step back, look, look away. Come back. Come back. Come back.
I felt that way, walking down the steps of the museum. I felt the call of the city to the world, the call of the people to the world. New Orleans has always been a city of little change, with an ancient character balanced on the brink of sudden disaster. I could only leave it with the promise that it would always be there. But to even glimpse the bold colors, and then to inspect the toppled lime-green spring-popping arm chair, a faded American flag draped over a rusted scythe, the blades of an orange ceiling fan drooped like the legs of an insect -- to look closer and find these things burning among the ruin is to know not what New Orleans was, but who it was. For the many people from the Lower Ninth Ward, from Lakefront, from Saint Bernard, from Gentilly -- where Polidori lived as a teenager -- these articles constitute the furniture of their lives, and thus, characterize the people themselves. The shape of the city has changed, but the absence of help, of salvation, hums electrically in these portraits. It leaves you with the feeling of damage mixed with a searing sensitivity to the city's climate, like those lazy screen doors that slam but never quite shut. Polidori leaves us with this, and with a need that keeps wanting, and a wish for more compassion and less complacency. And with an overwhelming ache of the desire and right of return.
Erica Ciccarone 321 77th St. Brooklyn, NY 11205 HYPERLINK "mailto:Erica.Ciccarone@gmail.com" Erica.Ciccarone@gmail.com 646-512-2767 Erica Ciccarone PAGE 5