After Katrina

New Orleans After the Flood: Photographs by Robert Polidori

an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
September 19–December 10, 2006

After the Flood

by Robert Polidori, with an introduction by Jeff L. Rosenheim
Göttingen, Germany: Steidl, 333 pp., $90.00

Twenty-four chromogenic prints each measuring three by five feet: the exhibition begins with six of them in the Metropolitan’s Tisch Galleries, the long upstairs corridor customarily devoted to etchings, drawings, and photographs, and continues, after two left turns, in the modest spaces of the Howard Gilman Gallery. The show concerns the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina’s ruinous pass over New Orleans on August 29, 2005, as recorded by the distinguished architectural photographer Robert Polidori in four visits between September 2005 and April 2006; it is being attended, to judge from the day this viewer was present, by more youthful African-Americans than usually make their way into the Met.

Katrina, as the disaster is called for short, was a black disaster, exposing the black poverty that, dwelling in the low-lying areas of the metropolis, stayed out of the view of the tourists who flocked to Bourbon Street for a taste of Cajun cuisine and old-fashioned jazz, or who admired the fluted columns and iron lace of the gently moldering Garden District, or who were unthriftily prepared to laisser le bon temps rouler at Mardi Gras or the Super Bowl. Good times were what the city had to sell, trading on its racy past as a Francophone southern port.

Founded in 1718, it flirted from the start with sea level, as the surging Mississippi and Lake Pontchartrain hung over its shoulder; like Los Angeles on its fault line, and New York City in its congestion, it borrowed glamour from a hypothetical precariousness. Not merely hypothetical, Katrina proved: 160,000 homes were swamped, and, to quote Jeff L. Rosenheim’s succinct introduction to Polidori’s massive album After the Flood, “street after street, block after block, from Chalmette and New Orleans East to the Lower Ninth Ward, Lakeview, Metairie, and Gentilly (where Polidori lived as a teenager)” added up to “widespread urban ruin” and “community disintegration.” Many thousands of the displaced have still not returned; an estimated 200,000 never will. A major American city was depopulated with a suddenness and thoroughness war itself could not surpass.

The event was mostly just news, like tornadoes in Kansas and mudslides near Malibu, to the rest of us; Polidori’s big prints take us there with a lofty dispassion and even focus. Eerily, no human beings are present in the photographs, so they have the uncanny stillness of Piranesi carceri, of Richard Estes’s glittering cityscapes, of Egyptian tombs unsealed after millennia.1 The circumstances in which these impassive exposures were made were not studio-ideal; there was no electricity in most of the interiors, and, to quote Rosenheim again:

When Polidori arrived in New Orleans on September 20…, 80% of the city was still under water. The temperature was close to 90° F and the smell of rotting flesh and food was putrid. Downed electric cables draped the streets and sidewalks. Toppled live oaks lay like fallen colossi, except there was no grandeur to the scene, just despair. Most traffic lights and streetlamps had long stopped working, and exhausted relief crews…

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