After Robert Polidori’s 11-pound, 2006 doorstop-opus chronicling the devastation wrought on New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina and the Bush administration’s incompetent response to it, did we really need another oversize book photo-documenting the storm’s aftermath?
As it turns out, yes. Richard Misrach’s new “Destroy This Memory,” his 69-page, 69-picture look at New Orleans after surviving New Orleanians returned, will ruin your day and it will make it better. It demonstrates that post-Katrina books and photographic projects should not be lumped together as one thing. Consider Misrach’s presentation an affirmation that artists can bring strikingly different, equally valuable points-of-view to the same subject and that their contributions to story-telling and creating our collective memory are every bit as valuable as journalism or oral history.
To contextualize Misrach’s work, we should start with Polidori’s. Titled “After the Flood,” Polidori’s book presents almost 600 pictures and its bulk serves as an obvious metaphor for the scale of the disaster. Published a year after the disaster and as New Orleans took its first, small steps toward recovery, Polidori showed us as many pictures of flood damage both inside and outside people’s homes as his publisher’s printing press could handle. (Yes, literally.)
In part because Misrach arrived in New Orleans after Polidori did and his book and pictures (mostly) came second, Misrach’s book focuses not on the totality of the devastation but on one way New Orleanians responded to it. (Polidori arrived in September, 2005 and shot the post-Katrina period for The New Yorker. Misrach arrived in October, 2005.)
In most of Polidori’s pictures, people have apparently not yet returned to their homes to survey the devastation. (As a result, “After the Flood” has a haunting relationship to Polidori’s Chernobyl work.) By the time Misrach is on the scene, many of Polidori’s homes have transitioned into still-standing garbage. Their owners are back, have seen the damage and have asked themselves, Once your house is no longer a place you can live, what would you do with it? Misrach’s pictures showcase one of the answers: New Orleanians spray-painted messages on their homes, cars and propped-up boards of plywood. The graffiti are warnings, announcements, pleas and even sly jokes shared with neighbors, government, city officials and neighbors. They are among New Orleanians’ first written responses to their hell.
A viewer familiar with Misrach’s typically polished work can feel the artist shrugging off training, skill and even habit so that he can tell this story. Gone is the careful composition and striking colors that characterize Misrach’s pictures of beautiful places such as Western deserts or the Golden Gate. Misrach’s New Orleans pictures are not attractive and they are not composed. They’re shot and then presented. (When you’re shooting with a weenie-little 4MP digital camera like Misrach was, you can’t later zoom in or crop out the way you can with the 8-by-10 view camera he typically uses.)
As a result, the messages come across as folk poetry, vernacular Lawrence Weiners that value directness over lyricism. Some messages are knowingly sarcastic: “Yup Brownie, you did a heckuva job.” Others are reassuring: “Lisa + Donnie R OK.” The most haunting are the death notices: “RIP Thomas Burke aka Tab” and “Possible Body.”
Misrach’s didn’t just make his pictures into a book, he printed them and gifted full sets of prints to five museums that serve as storehouses of our visual record of ourselves and our culture: the Museum of Modern Art, the National Gallery, the MFA Houston, SFMOMA and the New Orleans Museum of Art. Misrach is also donating the royalties from book sales to the Make it Right Foundation, which is active in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans. (Readers may also click here to give to Make it Right.)
Tomorrow I’ll look at the narrative Misrach has created in “Destroy This Memory.”
Related: MAN’s 2006 Q&A with Robert Polidori, in which he’s still dealing with the anguish caused by what he saw in New Orleans.