Finding Beauty in Tragedy

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works
Thursday, December 28, 2006; 4:31 PM

In the space of four years, Americans experienced twin tragedies that seared the soul: the terrorist attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the devastation on the Gulf Coast caused by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.

Previous generations have had their own emotional benchmarks, both high and low: Where were you when they attacked Pearl Harbor? The day Kennedy was shot (Jack or Bobby)? The day we walked on the moon?

For most of the current generation the marker always will be September 11th. Where were you when the planes hit the Towers? The Pentagon? That lonely field in Pennsylvania?

But for those who also had to individually face the terror of Katrina and its shameful aftermath, that tragedy likely will overshadow even the twin towers in their personal catalogue of awful memories.

It probably is the simple fact of distance (and, it must be said, our own self-absorption) that another nearly unfathomable disaster -- the tsunami in the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, 2004, that cost an estimated quarter million lives--does not resonate as deeply with most of us as the comparatively lesser tragedy of Katrina eight months later, the death toll from which stands today at less than 2,000.

But not only was Katrina a perfect storm of devastation and death; it provided in its aftermath an appalling portrait of the federal government's near-criminal incompetence in dealing with a situation it knew was coming. And that makes this disaster all the more horrific. When George W. Bush finally leaves office in January, 2009 he will take with him the legacy of two wars he lost, and that a better man could have won: in Iraq and on the Gulf Coast of his own country.

Two huge books, by two remarkable photographers, document the twin tragedies of 9/11 and of Katrina with the formality -- and even beauty--that only can be found in lavishly produced coffee table volumes. Aftermath -- World Trade Center Archive, (Phaidon, $75) documents Joel Meyerowitz's dogged pursuit of the visual story after the twin towers were attacked from the air by plane-wielding terrorists. After the Flood by Robert Polidori (Steidl, $90) is the result of this French-Canadian artist's four lengthy trips to Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. His view camera take on the tragedy, from twisted phone pole vistas to color abstracts of mold on a wall, offer up a riveting and disturbing beauty.

And though that in itself can raise questions about the voyeuristic, even parasitic, nature of photography, on balance these two books transcend such pop-culture criticism and perform the valuable task of bearing witness.

Polidori, and to a lesser extent Meyerowitz, have each in his way, created the photographic standard by which the visual record of Katrina and 9/11 will be measured.

At 68, native New Yorker Joel Meyerowitz already has established himself as one of this country's premier large-format landscape photographers. Nearly three decades ago, I was enthralled by his ability to capture the tranquil beauty, and occasional thunderstorm fury, of Cape Cod in the summer. That book, Cape Light, remains one of the finest examples of gentle, serene landscape photography I ever have seen.

By contrast, I became familiar with the work of photographer Robert Polidori, a 55-year-old native of Montreal, comparatively recently: in the pages of The New Yorker over the past several years as he seemed to raise the bar for architectural photography with every new picture he offered.

Polidori's gorgeous large-format color photographs, whether freestanding pieces anchored only by a caption, or the starting point for a long New Yorker article on a building or a place, captivated me for their knowing use of color, light, shadow and space. Polidori's images never seemed to be only about some famous architect's building -- shown off at its best with all angles and perspective correct. Polidori, as others have noted as well, always seemed to incorporate context into his photographs, as if he were as interested in a structure's surroundings as he were about the structure itself.


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