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Colossal Desolation

One of the most amazing experiences this season has been the exhibition, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, of twenty four photographs by Robert Polidori's, entitled "New Orleans After the Flood." I cannot stress the importance of the three-by-five foot chromogenic prints. The scale is about as large as the eye can bear, and it works to emphasize the randomness of disorder. Mr Polidori is determined to subtract himself from his images; his framing is as deadpan as that of, say, Bernd and Hilda Becher. Although the pictures are full of rich color, the camera's unthinking gaze subdues all excitement. Because the life on view is strictly vegetative, the distance between you and the idea of your home is foreshortened. Affluent and destitute alike were reduced to the state of nature by the preventable intrusion of Lake Pontchartrain.

It is hard to deal with the beauty of these photographs. Any attempt at analysis seems to court the danger of vulgar detachment. I do believe that it begins in stunning clarity. Never have I seen photographs at once so quiet and so assertive. Perhaps we admire the pictures as a record of an intrepid journey: Mr Polidori has visited this nightmare world and, on the evidence, retained his sanity. He has somehow seen to it that sorrow is leavened by hope.

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In his whimsical U and I, Nicholson Baker rejoiced in sharing the same "carnal circuitry" with his hero, John Updike. Mr Updike's commentary on "After the Flood," makes it clear to me that I do not share the celebrated author's moral circuitry. Writing of the ruined interior, 1401 Pressburg Street, Mr Updike laments,

... it is the wrecked, mildewed interiors that take our eye and quicken our anxiety. Would our own dwelling quarters look so pathetic, so obscenely reflective of intimate needs inadequately met, if they were similarly violated and exposed?

This is very offensive. Who is Mr Updike to say that the needs of this room's occupants were inadequately met? The unspoken but palpable allusion to the Last Judgment only makes the implication of guilt-by-inadequacy (and poor taste) all the more shocking. How does Mr Updike know what this room looked like before the flood? And where does he get the idea that the house is in one of New Orleans's "humble neighborhoods accustomed to being ignored"? A glance at Google Maps locates the house in Gentilly, a solidly middle class part of town. I don't know what's worse, Mr Updike's condescension or the laziness with which he extrapolates poverty from desolation.

A few lines later, Mr Updike writes of "our fascinated, sociologically prurient gaze." This is followed by references to Susan Sontag's On Photography. I believe in the possibility that reading On Photography might help thoughtful people recognize that gaze and replace it with an empathic regard. The power of Mr Polidori's photographs is their firm and still grasp of fact, whether the view be of the Queen's Bedroom at Versailles or the living room at 1401 Pressburg. Both photographs are of rooms first and only implicitly of lifestyles. The latter also captures the fact of devastation, a state that, in me at least, arouses sorrow and pity, not prurient fascination. There is nothing prurient in recognizing that this could happen to me.

Mr Updike's mistitled piece ("After Katrina") also seems insufficiently aware of the cause of the damage on exhibit. Katrina the storm is held responsible. But of course New Orleans was not destroyed by a storm. It was, as the title of the Met's show has it, flooded. And it flooded because the responsible authorities - principal among them the Army Corps of Engineers - had neglected the proper maintenance of the levees. It's a pity that, for all the images that we have of the disaster, we don't have a stationary video of the water's steady but probably not turbulent rise. It's an image that would bring home to more people the avoidability of it all. (November 2006)

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