September 24th, 2006

I’m sort of touchy when it comes to “fine art” photography. Every medium has its own special challenges, but besides having its own set of technical requirements, photography seems to have an inherent journalistic plateau: after achieving a certain level of mastery of subject selection and composition, it’s pretty hard to differentiate oneself artistically from untold numbers of other talented photographers and what they’d capture given similar circumstances. No matter what really goes into taking a photograph, it almost always comes off to a viewer as just that – taking it, being there to chronicle it; a photographer rarely comes off as quite the creator of an image as say, a painter, a sculptor, or even a sketch artist.

Which isn’t to knock photojournalism, of course. There’s absolutely great talent and artistry there, and I wouldn’t even go so far as to say that “capturing” reality is less difficult or less lofty than “creating” art. But it’s a different claim than fine art. So when photography asks to be taken as fine art rather than fine journalism, I have to look at it differently. And living in a city that’s so eminently photographable jades the palate: thousands of Mardi Gras Indians, thousands of grainy black-and-white tombs looming at odd angles, thousands of wisps of Spanish moss – they’re all lovely, and for the most part the good photos call up the aesthetic of the underlying subject; the not-so-good ones are just clichéd. And now there are thousands of flooded homes, overturned cars, and spraypainted X’s too.

As journalism, Katrina photography is crucial – if pictures so much as call up a two-dimensional shorthand of the losses they depict, they’re are successful. When it’s claimed as art, however, I’m extra leery. Imagery that comes prepackaged with such vicerally emotional content is just too easy. That said, there’s something about Robert Polidori’s New Orleans After the Flood at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or the selected images I’ve seen of it anyway, that steps up from the journalistic plateau. As is so often the case with art, it’s hard for me to articulate exactly why I think so. The most I can say is that my impression of them lies somewhere in the intersection of a couple factors: the compositions and palettes are impressive, and the scenes don’t seem reduced to the point of abstraction on the one hand, or sentimentalized to the point of beating me over the head with any message I don’t already know too well on the other. And they almost make the NY Times’ Pompeii analogy apt.

Pompeii’s a strange choice, but preferable, I think, to Atlantis (which I think I’ll add as another qualifier for a Gumbo Award). At first glance, New Orleans seems like the anti-Pompeii — Pompeii is most famous for having been preserved, whereas in New Orleans the mold, rot and rust have been hard at work from the start. Where the comparison works, though, is in how utterly domestic the scenes are that they’ve both left.

5 Responses to “Pompeii”

  1. Karen Says:

    I found those photos to be very peaceful. The absolute lack of life in them is pretty stunning. I should have stolen th enewspaper from you when I had the chance.

  2. Christopher Hoff Says:

    Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Cartier-Bresson, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andre Kertesz.
    It takes a lot more than being there.

  3. becky Says:

    It certainly does – a subtle difference can be so absolute.

  4. Matthew Says:

    I think Polidori’s New Orleans work to be shameless, voyeuristic trash. It seems terrible to be praising his “directness of vision” when the proceeds he’s received for these shots and his book would be enough to rebuild an entire city block in New Orleans. He’s making money off of invading others privacy; benefitting from the misfortune of others. It’s not art, that’s for sure.

  5. becky Says:

    Matthew, the number of things whose proceeds would be enough to rebuild an entire city block in New Orleans are too many to count. We could rebuild ourselves a hundred times over and more if every dollar someone deemed frivolous came here instead. Do I want more funding to come to New Orleans for recovery purposes? Of course. But does that mean that all arts, sciences, and other human activities taking place in, or related to the city should stop? Of course not. What would we be recovering then?

    Incidentally, a portion of the proceeds of After the Flood are being donated to the Tipitina’s Foundation and WWOZ. I’m sure Polidori and the Met are making their share as well, but I don’t begrudge them that, either for the sake of art photography, or for the sake of continuing to engage “Katrina fatigued” viewers in the state of New Orleans.