Tuesday, November 21, 2006

America's Watery Pompeii

John Updike, The New York Review of Books, on “New Orleans After the Flood,” a collection of remarkable photographs by Robert Polidori, and the related exhibition at the Metropolitan, through Dec. 10:

Toppled live oaks lay like fallen colossi, except there was no grandeur to the scene, just despair. (Quoting from Jeff L. Rosenheim's introduction to the book).

In New Orleans, he dealt not with invisible radioactivity but with a city like, he has said in an interview, "a decomposing body"; photographs taken six months after the hurricane still show scant signs of cleanup, reclamation, and recovery. (Updike)

Automobiles, those stolid American necessities, turn out to be susceptible and rather comically buoyant in a flood; the second photo, 2600 Block of Munster Boulevard, captures two of them with their rear ends elevated, like a pair of saucy chorus girls, in a row of brick bungalows. (Updike)

Even the bleakest of the shelters that caught the photographer's attention — the single-story shack on Tupelo Street, for instance, a missing wall baring a bright closetful of abandoned clothes; or the wrecked salmon-colored cabin at Law and Tupelo Streets; or the grimly simple bedroom on presciently named Flood Street, with its careening mattress and ceiling fan wilted like a Dalì timepiece — hold bits of decorative art and vibrations of life, cut off as suddenly as occupancies at Pompeii. (Updike)

Heaped onto the street and sidewalk are tons of the flimsy stuff of American housing—fiberglass insulation like poisonous cotton candy; sheets of warped plywood; mock-pine pressed sheathing; pulverized plasterboard; aluminum siding splayed like palm fronds as houses floated and twisted; strips of metal and molding; plastic-covered shelves and countertops; shower curtains and mattresses, downspouts and lawnmowers, air conditioners and refrigerators mired in a state of eternal paralysis. (Updike)

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