It has been a little over a year since Hurricane Sandy struck New York. More than a storm, it was a jolt to the city’s consciousness: the harbor that played such a critical part in putting New York “at the center of the world” (in Russell Shorto’s fine phrase) was now also a source of menace.
As the heavens would have it, Sandy hit land at high tide and during a full moon when rivers, bays, creeks and ocean were especially ripe to swell. The city issued evacuation orders to 375,000 New Yorkers, tens of thousands of whom either decided to stay put or, as was the case with residents of assisted living facilities in the Rockaways and elsewhere, had no means to get out. Some felt exhilarated at the possibility of being present at the big event, others feared that their homes, left unprotected, would be looted or otherwise irrevocably lost.
In February 2013, the Museum of the City of New York sent out a broad invitation, to both amateurs and professionals, to submit images of the storm—photographs snapped on cell phones, film, digital cameras or whatever else happened to be at hand. Culled from these submissions is the exhibition “Rising Waters,” and it confirms an impression I had in the days and weeks after Sandy: that still photographs and written language, both imbibed in silence, convey the spirit of the catastrophe more truthfully than moving images.
In fact, the one marring element in “Rising Waters” is the blare of television news from the night of the storm playing on a continuous loop on a screen. The spectacle of bundled up reporters shouting into their soaked microphones transmits first and foremost as noise; photographs, on the other hand, possess the magic of being real. To contemplate them a year later on the gallery walls is to absorb anew the storm’s visceral force.
The stunned days of Sandy rush back as soon as you enter the gallery: the feeling in the pit of yourself of destroyed lives; of the sheer, drenched ugliness of the flooded zones; and, during the blackout, a kind of perpetual midnight menace as the sun set earlier and earlier in the afternoon.
The entire exhibit is tinged with the aura of the city’s impermanence and fragility. Stephen Wilkes’s aerial shot of the temporary debris dump in Jacob Riis Park gives the mountains of torn, besotted household objects the softness of piled ash. “Beach In Progress” by Jennifer Eggleston offers an almost-casual image of bathers in full frolic, sunning themselves at Rockaway Beach this past summer, with the destroyed Boardwalk hovering over them and a cluster of housing projects towering in the not-so-distant haze. In John Mattiuzzi’s “Pre-Storm Amusements,” a young woman stands on a pier in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Tilted by the wind, she is in the throes of a kind of weather-lashed ecstasy.
Most telling of all, perhaps, is Deirdre Galvin’s photograph of a post-Sandy billboard in a charred section of Breezy Point. On the billboard is an artist’s rendition of a proposed esplanade, replete with white plastic lawn chairs, umbrellas, a red brick path and the emblazoned words: “COMING SOON!” Maybe, maybe not. An urban planner told me that at a recent architectural conference the tag line for Sandy recovery was: “Small means, great ends.” In other words, don’t expect much more than the fungicide sprayers and mold remediators in their protective suits and masks at work in people’s tiny kitchens and bedrooms.
“Rising Waters” is at the Museum of the City of New York through April 6, 2014.