Yesterday I began MAN’s two-part look at Richard Misrach’s new book, “Destroy This Memory.” This is part two.
In their second debate during the run-up to the 2000 election, moderator Jim Lehrer asked candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush about racial profiling. Gore indicated that he had tried to imagine what it would be like to be targeted by police solely on the basis of his skin color. When it was Bush’s turn, he rejected Gore’s empathetic approach. “Yeah, I can’t imagine what it would be like to be singled out because of race and stopped and harassed,” Bush said.
Bush’s answer revealed a failure or an unwillingness of imagination. Five years later, when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and Bush’s administration reacted with indifference and sloth, I thought back to that debate. Neither President Bush nor his administration were able to put themselves in the soggy shoes of New Orleans residents, to understand what it would be like to need help and to need it that desperately. That failure to imagine hell-on-earth led to the Bush administration’s incompetent response.
I thought of all this again while examining Richard Misarch’s new book of 69 photographs taken weeks after the storm. The book, titled “Destroy This Memory,” is no random assortment of photographs strung together willy-nilly. It is a story, carefully told, a narrative that moves through pictures of graffitied responses to the disaster. Consider it Misrach’s attempt at imagining how bad things must have been in New Orleans, his way of trying to understand what New Orleanians went through in the month or two before his arrival in their city. Unlike our nation’s leaders, Misrach expended the emotional effort to try to get inside a people’s post-hurricane mentality, and we the viewers are richer for it.
There is no text in Misrach’s book — not even page numbers — but the imaginative calculation of Misrach’s sequencing is apparent. The book begins with two pleas: Someone has written, “Help! Help!” on the front of a duplex. [Above.] In the next picture someone has written “Help” on a black shingle roof. (I wonder if Mark Bradford knew…)
Then, suddenly, only two pictures in, we are beyond help. On the side of a house whose roof is missing shingles and whose side-yard is a storm-tossed shambles, someone has written, “FUCK!” And on the other side of a small window, again: “FUCK!” The next picture features a piece of plywood covering an apparently broken window and the admonition of last resort: “Seek God.”
Here Misrach’s narrative takes a turn toward the post-apocalyptic. The next five photographs feature Thunderdome-style warnings: “I am here, I have a gun;” “Looters shot — survivors shot again;” “I will shoot to kill;” “Don’t try. I am sleeping inside with a big dog, an ugly woman, two shotguns and a claw hammer;” and finally, “Looters will be shot.” [Above, left.]
Over the next eight pictures Misrach reminds us of one of the ‘extra’ ways people suffered during the Katrina period: People didn’t just lose their stuff, they lost their support networks, including their pets.
After Misrach suffuses his story with that kind of personal loss comes the most devastating photograph in the series. It was taken at night. It is of a one-story building surrounded by debris. A barred door is open and askew. It is hard to see inside the house because what looks like a large appliance, perhaps a washing machine, is blocking our view. To the right of the door, in light blue spray paint, someone has written “Possible body.” Possible. Only possible. [Above, right.] Even President Bush would have been able to imagine the horror of the scene that likely laid behind that appliance.
Misrach’s next four photos are all of death notices spray painted onto houses. They’re all simple, straightforward, urgent and short: “RIP Zack and RIP Lil Joe,” reads one.
Now Misrach lets despair take over. He gives us three photos of a big-rig trailer, tilted over on one side. Someone has written “Fuck you” on it. Misrach’s three pictures begin by zooming in close on the words, and then pull out to give us a broader view. As I quickly flipped through them, I felt like I was staggering backwards, almost falling down.
Shortly thereafter, Misrach’s pictures seem to turn a corner. We see New Orleanians share some messages of survival: “I am alive”; “Lisa + Donnie R OK,” written with a phone number so that their friends can check in; and a few photographs later, a bit of Joe Friday-esque dark humor painted on the side of badly damaged light-blue house: “Sorry, we have moved,” along with a presumably new phone number.
Little by little some optimism seeps into Misrach’s story. After a few more pictures about the plight of pets, Misrach shows us a house on to which rescue workers had repeatedly spray-painted “dog” as a way of indicating a pet was still stuck inside. Someone has spray-painted “RESCUED” on top of it all, along with a smiley face. [Above, left.]
More emotional upswing: “Keep the faith,” urges one writer. A photograph of a small, white Toyota left perched atop a bass boat by the flood waters includes a sign left by the boat owner: “Please remove your car from the boat without crushing it!” We hope it’s dark humor.
The narrative upswing continues, now with some swagger: “Hey Katrina! That’s all you got? You big sissy!!! We will be back!!! Norman, Keena, Sean, Lil Norman.” The humor becomes more explicit. Someone’s friends or neighbors left a message on a blue stucco house marked by a flood stains: “T&E — We love what you’ve done with the place!” Someone advertises by painting “Yard Sale” on the side of a tree that’s fallen on a house. Another home has been picked up off of its site by the flood waters and has been let down in the middle of a street. Just above the corner of the house someone has spray-painted “Wicked Witch,” with an arrow pointing down at the corner of the house. [Above, right.]
Finally, at the end of the book, Misrach pulls back from the cheeky humor and the almost-but-not-quite optimism. “Yep, Brownie, you did a heck of a job,” snarks a wisecracker in mocking approval of FEMA director Michael Brown and President Bush’s inexplicable praise of his agency’s response to Katrina. “Resign Bush,” suggests one spray-painter. A homeowner has painted contradictory messages on the front of his house: “The South will rise again,” faces off against, “The end was here.”
Misrach’s last five pictures tie up his story. They do not suggest a happy ending or even optimism. They say: “Broken Dreams”; “Keep the faith” and “We will rebuild”; “I’ll miss you”; “What now?” [left] and “Destroy this memory.” If only.
Related: Part one of MAN’s review of “Destroy This Memory.” My 2006 Q&A with Katrina-chronicler Robert Polidori, whose “After the Flood’ is literally and metaphorically the book that ‘came before’ Misrach’s work. Richard Hughes’ installation at the 2008 Carnegie International was likely inspired by Katrina.