It takes a particular sensibility, in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, to focus on inanimate objects. “No ideas but in things,” the poet William Carlos Wiliams wrote, and it is part of Robert Polidori’s working method to let mute walls bear witness. Polidori is best known as an architectural photographer, but his true interests lie at the limits of the habitable world, where disaster and human failures combine to create places nearly lost to history. Two current exhibitions of his large-format color pictures testify to his fascination with space as an expression of psychology, and with ruins as vectors of emotional upheaval and social decay.
His subject at the Metropolitan Museum (and in his massive new book After the Flood, published by Steidl) is the destruction visited upon New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina. Beginning on August 29, 2005, the storm’s 125-mph winds and torrential rains, and the flood waters that soon followed, reorganized the built environment in ways no urban planner could have imagined. Polidori, a French Canadian by birth who lived in New Orleans as a teenager, arrived there in late September; the streets were dark, food scarce, the water high in places, and much of the city sodden. On the first of four extended stays he set to work, documenting maimed houses and the remains of the lives that once filled them.
Outside, he registered nature’s surreal rearrangements: shotgun houses blown clear across the street, cars landed on their noses in front yards like extraterrestrials. Indoors, working with long exposures in rooms dimly lit by natural light, he showed four-poster beds collapsing under the weight of mud, upright pianos overturned and silenced, pathogenic mold blooming on upholstery and walls. There are allegories of fate, like the kitchen whose pots, hanging gaily overhead, escaped the floodwaters that wrecked havoc just below them, or the pink bedroom with a crystal chandelier suspended from bare rafters, its furnishings reduced to unidentifiable rubble. Who slept here, and where were they when the waters began to rise? Is this what the interiors of our bodies look like after death, or our souls after some great devastation?
Beautiful photographs of suffering people tend to make us uneasy; we wonder whose interests are served by such images. But the unearthly beauty Polidori uncovered in New Orleans seems harnessed to a larger cause; it heightens the emotional impact of what would otherwise be (for the most part) pictures of garbage, and it makes chaos visible. A requiem, after all, is nothing without a melody, and music (so close to the city’s soul) appears to be Polidori’s model here.
Can you make formal portraits of the end of civilization? This question also haunts an earlier series of pictures Polidori shot in the abandoned Ukrainian towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl, sites of the nuclear catastrophe that occurred in 1986. The photographer gained access to the area (which is strictly regulated) in 2001. (Edwynn Houk Gallery is showing a selection of images from his 2003 book Zones of Exclusion.) There, he focused his lens on public spaces, in particular the schools and hospitals of Pripyat, most of whose residents worked in the nearby nuclear facility. (The Kremlin kept news of the explosion a secret for a full 36 hours before ordering an evacuation.)
His pictures of kindergartens—with their peeling, institutional green walls; their little desks and chairs in disarray and covered in thick dust; and with gas masks and pictures of Lenin scattered among the toy trucks and dolls—are unutterably poignant images of a world that time forgot. Can they move us only to tears, or also to action? In Polidori’s photographs of New Orleans, something in our democracy lies shipwrecked; here, it’s the fate of future generations. In either case, the artist offers no prescription for repair, but makes visible the rift that wants healing.