A month ago I wrote a post entitled Where Are the People. Among other things, I discussed the fine art photographs of the Katrina disaster. Regarding the work of Robert Polidori, Chris Jordan, Katherine Wolkoff and others, I wrote:
I think these are all terrific photographers. And they’ve done admirable work. But after awhile I find the absence of people in the pictures a little frustrating.
Katrina is a good example of why I often defend the efforts of photojournalists. Certainly photojournalism has numerous faults, but I admire the attempt to connect the subject (in this case Katrina) to real people.
Today Robert Polidori responded to this post. (Read the full response here). Most of his comments are a defense of his photographic practice. Just to be clear, I never said that Polidori (or the others) did anything wrong. I didn’t criticize the use of beauty and certainly did not suggest a moral failure.
My point was quite simple. “While it is worthwhile to see the architectural devastation of New Orleans,” I wrote, “I also want to see the people – the lives actually living in this mess.”
I was tempted to let Polidori’s response stay lost in the blog archives. I have no beef with him or his work and don’t want to fan any flames. But along with Polidori’s defense of his practice, he made one particular comment that was just too juicy to leave alone:
What more are you really going to learn from having a person there? My belief is that you should take stills of what doesn’t seem to move, and take movies or videos of does. It’s my opinion that people come off better in movies.
It is an interesting opinion. While I won’t claim that portraits capture the ‘soul life’ (as he says of his interiors), I would certainly argue for their relevance.
Jeremiah Ward wears makeshift shoes after he was rescued from the Ninth Ward, photo by Irwin Thompson / Dallas Morning News
Polidori asks what we learn from pictures of people. In the case of the image above, one might say something about cigar boxes or improvisation or resiliency – but is art really about learning? I’m much more comfortable with the pursuit of beauty.
Would the feet be more beautiful if they were on video or described in prose? Or would this photograph be more beautiful if we didn’t see the feet?
Polidori makes a good point about a certain kind of fine-art portraiture. Had he or I (or the other artists mentioned above) attempted to photograph the victims of Katrina, they might have appeared “like stick figure props in front of their house.”
But this just gets to the crux of my argument. If we are going to have images from events like Katrina in our galleries, museums and libraries (as I think we must), I hope they aren’t limited to stiff, large-format photography. Those pictures absolutely have their place. But so do Jeremiah’s feet.