Robert Polidori’s deceptively picturesque images remind us of the futility of human ambition
The contemplation of ruins has long been regarded as an acutely civilised practice, at once unsettling and reassuring. Unsettling, because the decay of monumental old cities or tombs shows the grandest of human ambitions to be flimsy and ephemeral – ‘look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair’ – and reassuring, because whatever is left behind tends to be both easy on the eye (aestheticians of the late eighteenth century counselled the would-be Picturesque tourist to make a beeline for the nearest dissolved monastery) and somehow proud and indomitable.
But the trouble with ruins is that they lie. Priests and princes get to leave their stamp on the future; but ordinary lives are more fragile (and ordinary houses, often, are not built to last). The uncovered city is gentrified by the cataclysm that consumed it. What survives of it is nobler than what it really was. The past seems to have been all about power and display at the expense of the disorder of actual, lived life.
The American photographer Robert Polidori has an eye for ruins both ancient and modern. Polidori started out on the fringes of the avant-garde New York film-making scene, a couple of degrees away from Warhol’s Factory. In the 1980s he turned to photography, combining a conventional commercial and journalistic career with large-format ‘art’ prints of mostly architectural subjects.
In 1998, he took the pictures for a rather superior coffee-table book about the ancient Roman cities along the Libyan coast. Lately he has turned to the present, shooting in 2003 in Pripyat, abandoned after the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, and, while the floods caused by Hurricane Katrina in the summer of 2005 still lay on the city, New Orleans (a city where he had lived as a teenager).
Polidori’s pictures are large, sumptuous and cluttered. Fast film and long exposures yield intense, sometimes distorted, colours even in poor light. Copious little details are visible but often rendered with a painterly inexactness (the long exposures mean that anything that moves, blurs). His work is widely, but lightly, allusive. The Libya pictures, and another project in and around the palace of Versailles, have, appropriately enough, something of the age of the Grand Tour about them: Piranesi’s swooping perspectives and jagged textural contrasts, David Roberts’ romantic antiquarianism. The Katrina pictures, often and inevitably, evoke the Southern Gothic of Walker Evans, even if Polidori has none of Evans’ compositional rigour and drive towards simplicity. Certainly, Polidori’s ‘I wanted the physical world to reveal itself to me and tell me what the answers were’ reads like a more flowery take on Evans’ laconic ‘Die knowing something’.
But maybe it is the lack of rigour that is the point. Critics have been quick to accuse Polidori of ghoulishness, not to say of ‘cashing in’ on the difficulties of the Big Easy. The shade of Susan Sontag has been conjured up to remind us that photography is an act of trespass. Katrina was, let us not forget, a political minefield as well as a natural catastrophe: a tipping point in the fortunes of George W. Bush, whose sluggish response to poor black Americans in peril proved more successful than his tough love for Iraqis in dismantling the myth of the compassionate conservative. Here was a place to tread softly. But one consequence of the sheer weight of data that Polidori’s pictures offer the viewer, and the strangely offhand way in which they do so, is that they have an openness about them. You can take them as tragic or celebratory, melodramatic or journalistic: what you will. As for the politics: John Updike reviewed the Katrina book, and the exhibition that accompanied it, cautiously, in The New York Review of Books in 2006. Pointing out that a cover price of put the book beyond the reach of many of those hardest hit by the hurricane, Updike also conceded that never before had he seen so many young black Americans walk through the imposing halls of the Metropolitan Museum. If the pictures are ok with them, maybe they should be ok with everyone else.
Looking across Polidori’s work as a whole, it is a preoccupation with politics, more than issues of style or technique, that strikes one. Over and again he visits places in which political power or cultural stability has been upended and rendered puny and irrelevant: Versailles, sacked in the French Revolution and nowadays part heritage attraction, part storeroom; Havana, where colonial opulence ran to seed under Communist dictatorship and capitalist sanctions; Chernobyl, where neither Soviet power nor the maternal reassurances of twentieth-century technology were able to forestall an unspeakable disaster; New Orleans itself, its sluttish elegance always teetering on the edge of decay, its very existence an arrogant flouting of the laws of physics, at last deluged, emptied of its famously lively human contents and, as it were, hung out to dry. Even the Roman pictures look less like traditional exercises in antiquarianism than documents of the irrepressible randomness of things. Bits of carved stone – a godly thigh here, a temple frieze there – are strewn evenly about (as if left by a receding flood, one notices). The grandeur of the ancients’ achievement, and the arresting power of the stumps and arches that survive, is prettified but also undermined by a tide of disjecta.
This is something entirely unlike the old cult of ruins, which was partly about the Sublime – the power of big, old things to inspire awe – and partly about the Picturesque – the sheer visual interest of the distressed and dilapidated. Polidori’s view (and it is not an antiquarian view, though it does have its roots in antiquity; he would agree with Heraclitus that you cannot step into the same river twice) is that life is flux, and it is presumptuous, not to say dictatorial, to imagine otherwise. In this sense, although his pictures have the rhetoric of art photography, in their bigness and lushness, he is perhaps primarily a photojournalist.
Only, where conventional photojournalism is all about identifying the telling moment, Polidori asks rather what a given moment (or half-minute) can tell us. His pictures are not aiming for narrative clarity (although After the Flood, his Katrina book, takes us from the immediate aftermath of the deluge to the start of rebuilding) or sureness of tone. If there is a tradition into which we might usefully slot his work, it is that of the Vanitas, a type of religious allegory much explored in baroque art (and here we might note Polidori’s Catholic upbringing). Which brings us back to the unsettling part of the equation at the top of this piece: look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair.