Saturday, March 27, 2010

Death, Destruction and . . .

In conversation w/ D., about the photographing of ruins.

Ruins were common subjects in the first decades of photography: there are exemplary examples of such, as daguerreotype, calotype, wet plate image, etc. As a technical consideration, the immobility of any site, it's stationary aspect, facilitated its imaging by processes which were time-intensive. & in these images one can see a cultural shift in the use of the image to delineate time as a physical residue, residue which can be simultaneously historical & touristic.

We can see the Acropolis or the excavations of Pompeii with the new technological vision of the camera. The sites tend to be much dirtier & unkempt than in our present day, or so it seems - it could be a problem w/ early orthochromatic films. It is as the places do not know how to be seen - how awkward they can seem. Or I think of the views by Roger Fenton of fantastical gothic ruins in England, with tiny figures randomly placed in the overgrown sites. This reminds me of how different it could be to experience such sites, physically, in different times. In Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Tess could run off to Stonehenge in her great solitude, whereas nowadays one would be on a very controlled guided tour.

The photograph also has air of judgement in it's seeming ability to discern what is to be preserved & what is to be discarded. For example, the survey by Charles Marville of Paris before the expansion of the city by Baron Hausmann had obliterated the medieval city is an inventory of what is to be destroyed, after it has been recorded by the camera. This is a concrete manifestation of the assertion by Oliver Wendell Holmes in his article about the stereoscope: Form is henceforth divorced from matter. The image is what is necessary, not the thing itself.

Images of war, as the urgency of the conflict fades from memory, become quaint & fascinating for their visual qualities. From the US Civil War, George Barnard's images following William Tecumseh Sherman's "March to the Sea" have an uncanny solitude, like Pompeii, which in no way imparts the aggressive fury of a military campaign of massive destruction. Such a duality in images - their ability to succor us from the horrors which they represent, is where I want to begin w/ my talk w/ D.

There are 2 photo books out this spring of Detroit - Detroit Disassembled, by Andrew Moore, and The Ruins of Detroit, by Yves Marchand & Romain Meffre. I have my own ongoing photographic project of Detroit, which includes images of the abandoned Michigan Central Station, & Victorian ruins in Brush Park. More on this another time: but is Detroit a "disaster" or the outcome of capitalist logic played out, & played out on home turf? Isn't it about economic obsolescence? An end that is now in sight?

From there the conversation led to Robert Polidori's book of photos of New Orleans, after the flooding of Hurricane Katrina, Robert Polidori: After the Flood.

For D., the viewing of ruins is a romantic activity. & less substantial than, say, the lyrics of Shelley's Ozymandias. No judgement is in the image itself, no (excuse the pun) point of view; the photographer is more a camera operator than an interpreter, with a technological recording at hand. The oblique photograph does not hone one's perspective but instead offers distraction & a puzzlement of meaning. In more general terms, the photograph reduces all to tourism.

Polidori's images of New Orleans are a fairly exhaustive inventory of damages from the hurricane & subsequent flooding, yet do so in a richly pictorial style we know from Polidori's earlier work, with it's sharp focus, rich colors, & intense details. I am partial to Polidori's book of Havana, for example, which although of a poverty on a scale we ignore in the US (& also of a past sumptuousness equally foreign to our more Puritanical shores), does not read necessarily as a kind of victimization except as a manifestation of an Exotic Other (although I suspect it may function as a prospective real estate brochure for those waiting for the fall of communism in Cuba).

The images of New Orleans are structured entirely around the flood; the images also manage to aestheticize the disaster
& have it read as natural. As if it is the high waters & mold lines constitute the issues at hand, rather than the class warfare & bureaucratic neglect which facilitated the true disaster. & this is where the work becomes troubling, in its delectation of a ruined city, for no other purpose than it's aesthetic consumption, in a simplified equation of cause & effect.

That said, I find that the void I sense looking at these images is what compels me to continue to look.


Martin Diegelman said...

Great blog.


Anonymous said...

I know a paper you might enjoy on Martin Van Heemskerk's views of the Coliseum. I am constantly amazed by Piranesi. An interesting interview in the new Jeff Wall survey where he refers to "spaces that weren’t useful for whatever reason and got left in an in-between state – between nature and dereliction – and which I have always somehow associated with freedom."