Three books put on display the hurricane's wrath. Disaster never looked so beautiful.
The picture ain’t pretty.
Like Moses, The Saints aren’t going to see the Promised Land, not yet. No Democrat has mentioned the K-word once since the party took control of Congress and, with it, the red-taped burden of domestic spending. Despite its depopulation by half, New Orleans crime has soared to the record-setting levels of the mid-1990s, and reports of rebuilding successes are so few and far between it’s almost laughable.
I couldn’t feel worse about the city I’m masochistically in love with, so I sat down for a hard look at books of Hurricane Katrina photography. Mold spore striations blossoming into Rothkos. A room of tangled wires suspending debris in an organized chaos that is positively Pollock. A Faulkneresque vision of a dramatically collapsed, mud-caked four-poster bed.
These images, found in Chris Jordan’s In Katrina’s Wake: Portraits of Loss from an Unnatural Disaster, Robert Polidori's After the Flood by Robert Polidori, and Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina edited by Eric Harvey Brown and Lori Baker, recall Vladimir Nabokov’s proclamation, “Beauty plus pity — that is the closest we can get to a definition of art.” These aftermath photos are hardly “surreal” or “abstract expressionist” and don’t deserve the knee-jerk, aesthetic euphemisms above. Such descriptions imply but cover up the fact that the domestic ruins framed in their lenses are undeniably beautiful — and that aesthetic judgment is precisely the horror of them.
In In Katrina’s Wake, Jordan’s poetic eye is pulled to the minutiae in mud — a tattered hymnbook, an open phone book, an old-fashioned radio, an American flag — as well as to misty, post-apocalyptic terrains, transforming everything into a haunted spectacle. His focus is as fascinated by the restructuring of basic elements in space — a refrigerator caught in a live oak, a hanging assemblage of lingerie and coat hangers — as it is, conversely, with objects that remain in situ against the odds — bibles in pew holsters, a standing residential gate without a fence, much less a home.
Beneath the saturated colors, there is a more subversive species of beauty at work here. Seen only as images of calamity, these graceful pictures simply follow the Nabokov's equation. Put into context, they are sublime assaults on pity, exploding into the pitiless nature of Katrina and her implicit conflicts: man’s relationship to the environment and the government’s relationship to its people in crisis. Jordan writes, “I hope the perspectives offered here might combine in a way that invites contemplation into the dark causes and consequences of the Katrina disaster, not as an exercise in contrition or shame but as a doorway to self-reflection.”
Amen. Those aren’t the words of a photojournalist but an artist on a mission to use tools of pity and beauty for awareness. Essays by Bill McKibben and Susan Zakin expertly assist in this process. Photography, after all, cannot help us understand no matter how effectively they shock. Only narrative brings elucidation. McKibben’s no-nonsense tour through the geopolitical history of global warming and its manufacturing of deadlier hurricanes in “Year One of the Next Earth” would color even Al Gore green with envy. In “A Fallen Corner of the World,” Zakin shuffles together a psychological anatomy lesson on New Orleans and an elegy for it — a clever, intuitive meditation that should be required reading on these subjects.
Less successful on this front is the doorstopper After the Flood. Robert Polidori’s portraits of streets and interiors, each taken in long exposures on 5 x 7 film sheets, are masterpieces at telling what technically occurred to each frame’s content. A car washed up on a sidewalk, then sat stationary as the waters receded, receiving identical watermarks as the double shotgun home behind it. An entire house was set down upon two cars. Waterlogged ceiling fan blades wilted like upside-down daisies over unsalvageable living rooms. Gazing into the ruined, personal spaces of strangers’ homes is a lot like looking at dead bodies. Like the dead, they often look the same and feel unfortunately cold.
Polidori's modern Pompeii is entirely devoid of people, rendering this formidable tome an archaeological record of sorts but a far too specialized one. Out of over 400 pictures, the only context given is street addresses that make sense only to those who have an inner local compass. Imagine a documentary with no narrating guide: that is After the Flood.
Signs of Life: Surviving Katrina assembles images of handmade signage and graffiti, snapped by relief workers, residents and those who traveled across the Gulf Coast bearing witness. In the months that followed, thousands of spray-painted messages made up a crude, silent conversation between ruins — on homes (“Help 8 Souls”), garages (“U Win We R Leaving”), plywood (“New Orleans Proud to Swim Home”), fences (“Martian Law”), vehicles (“If Ya ‘Aint Comin Home for X-Mas Don’t Come Back”), refrigerators (“4W,” “Buy 2 Maggots Get 10,000 Free,” “NOPD Beat Me Down”).
Addressed to rescuers, family and friends, passersby, God, everyone and no one, they are triumphant and heart-broken. They gave contact information, cried for help and pled for mercy. They threatened, lamented, cursed, supplicated and amused (“Don’t Try I Am Sleeping Inside with a Big Dog, An Ugly Woman, Two Shotguns and a Claw Hammer,” “Still Here Woman Left Fri. Cooking a Pot of Dog Gumbo"). They testified to survival, confessed giving up. In many cases, there was no difference — a chilling void of distinction that taps into harsh primal certainties: “Hope is not a Plan.”
Even the few images without words take the viewer hostage and back to those miserable weeks when the nation watched helplessly. “This image hits me on so many levels,” said a friend fixating on a picture of a tall, life-like crucifix leaning against a railroad car abandoned in the street — one of many haphazard juxtapositions that comments volumes on a far larger picture than the scene depicted. “Baghdad,” a house starkly reads on one of the poorest American city blocks.
The value of this diminutive, self-published book, aside from its proceeds going to Common Ground Relief and Hands On Network, lies in its channeling of these lost voices out of the flood waters, winds, and international debacles that are more popular for the powers that be, on both sides of the aisle, than domestic ones. These are the few words survivors managed to scrawl across massive destruction and time — simple, necessary marks for the sake and necessity of leaving some individualized trace on history.
One fallout to our obsession with media images is that we remember through photography, eroding other methods of recall and understanding. Photos supplant reality in time and, as some critics suggest, even constitute it in the first place. Though they traffic in images, each of these books wants the Gulf Coast to bypass that visual fate. By aesthetically focusing on mundane aspects to the tragedy, they take viewers to the queasy point where there is no difference waving and drowning — and ahead to a time when somewhere, somehow it will occur again.
Between the Covers is a biweekly book review and publishing analysis.