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High Watermarks

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It's been said that beautiful photographs of destruction and human suffering make us uneasy, partly because of the difficulty most of us have reconciling beauty and misery. Robert Polidori's photographs of New Orleans homes and interiors taken in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are certainly beautiful, albeit spectral and surreal; yet they also are disturbing not only for the suffering they imply, but also because of the implicit sense of trespass that makes the viewer an accomplice in the photographer's act of voyeurism " his examination of the wreckage of human lives evidenced in the moldy debris that their personal belongings had become. So goes the controversy that attends these large, crisp and richly colored images that reproduce every watermark and mold formation in microscopic detail and clarity. The counter argument is that the National Guard and pet-rescue organizations had left those formerly private homes open anyway, and that Polidori's work has made personal and intimate an event of such vast proportions that many Americans had trouble seeing its ordinary human dimensions. There must be something to it. When first shown at the Metropolitan Museum in New York, these works, now spread between the Ogden and Arthur Roger Gallery, attracted record crowds. Yet when other photographers peered into the dank and reeking caverns that flooded homes had become, many came away with pictures of well, garbage, for the most part. What makes Polidori's different? Part of it has to do with his abilities as a leading architectural photographer who happens to have also been a former New Orleanian, a native of Canada who lived in Gentilly as a teen. But there may also be more to it than that.

While his fame largely rests on large cityscapes, sweeping, crisply detailed vistas of great world cities bristling with futuristic skyscrapers, his most deeply held interests have more to do with personal space and how such spaces become imprinted with the personas of those who live there. Or as he puts it: 'It has long been my conviction that rooms are both metaphors and catalysts for states of being, and are thus an insight into the soul-life of their occupants. We may take a portrait of an individual but I believe that by photographing the interior of an abode we know much more about one's actual personality and personal values. It was important to record for posterity a panorama of mementos of interrupted lives."

His use of the term 'memento" recalls the memento mori genre of the Dutch Baroque still life tradition, which literally meant 'remember death," and usually referred to the skulls, hourglasses or sometimes insects that turned up in otherwise sumptuous arrangements of fruit or flowers, symbols of life and beauty. Indeed, some local artists have commented on how much Polidori's flooded interiors remind them of Dutch still life paintings of the vanitas variety " another term for memento mori. The point of such work was to celebrate life and beauty while pointedly reminding us that all things must pass, and if we try to cling to them our efforts will be 'in vain." (Vanity and vain stem from the same Latin root word for emptiness, or futility.) All of this is implicit in interiors such as 5417 Marigny Street, a view from within a kitchen with a nice assortment of pots, pans and cooking implements hanging neatly from a rack under a ceiling blossoming with lush, baroque patterns of mold. Below is a tumultuous mess with mud-caked appliances strewn haphazardly about while in the background an oozing mass of TV and sofa-shaped garbage suggests the carcass of a living room. Other images of homes tossed around like children's toys remind us of the vast forces that wreaked such havoc, but ultimately these photographs are Lenten in tone and tenor, reminders of how death is part of life and how change is the only constant.

Robert Polidori's photographs such as 5417 Marigny Street have been compared to Dutch Baroque still-life paintings for their intimations of mortality.
  • Robert Polidori's photographs such as 5417 Marigny Street have been compared to Dutch Baroque still-life paintings for their intimations of mortality.

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