Beauty in Destruction
Do you ever catch yourself looking at a photo covered in tragedy and think it's beautiful. I felt guilty when I saw an exhibit on Hurricane Katrina at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City last weekend. Robert Polidori's large chromogenic print series called, “After the Flood,” was the most artistic work I've seen to come out of the disaster. Usually, I'm not fond of post-disaster photos posing as art. Many times you can still see traces of death. But the exhibit of 20 near-life-size color photos taken between September 2005 and April 2006 was different for me. It was cathartic and full of symbolism.
Drawing upon his background as one of the world's premier architectural photographers, the photos were all taken with a large-format camera and close attention was given to composition. Going address to address (each print is named after the home's or debris' address), Polidori used ambient light and long exposures to encapsulate the mood of heaviness in the air, paralleling the heaviness of heart felt by those affected by the disaster.
While the photographer has an accompanying 331-page book of the same name, the platform of display on the grand museum walls really highlighted the beauty found in the details of tragedy. “After the Flood” is exhibited at the Howard Gilman Gallery now through Dec. 10. The small gallery was filled to capacity the entire two hours I spent there. Onlookers seemed shocked at the bounds of destruction and sometimes stared at any one photo for minutes.
The exhibit is a journey through the leftovers of human existence in homes that have become like other planets - inhabitable ones at that. I felt a little odd looking at people's most personal effects, without their knowledge, like a noisy neighbor. But you begin to realize that despite the obvious absence of people in every photo, the belongings help you put a face or personality with each home. The personals give the photos their true meaning and depth. When you realize this, it is moving.
A definite comment on the “fragility of life,” the exhibit is also a celebration of the resilience and immortality of human beings - of their souls and personalities through the survival of their artifacts. Belongings such as clothing, toys, religious mementos, framed photos, cereal boxes and board games were magnified on the huge prints. The enlargement of the possessions and their randomness throughout showed how each homeowner may have suffered financially, emotionally or even physically. The tumble of furniture, rotting wallboards, mud-caked upholstery, phones left off the hook and stopped clocks, seemed to tell the story of a bigger picture though - the story of the power of nature over man.
Despite the gray coating of debris on just about everything, the prints had leaps of vivacious color provided by a very strange source. The rich colors came from the existence of mold, as it climbed up the walls of bedrooms, kitchens and living rooms, in such vivid greens, pinks, yellows- it was as though artist Jackson Pollock had a hand in it. The toxic allure of the bright pathogen may symbolize the lure of New Orleans itself - and why many chose not to leave.
See the show if you can. To view photos from the exhibit, visit, http://www.metmuseum.org/special/new_orleans/images.asp