Who can say "no" to Richard Misrach? Usually no one, as he tends to work in unpopulated spaces, or at an unreachable physical distance.
There is something tantalizing about this book, and it could be his encroaching on occupied territory. Weren't Robert Polidori and maybe a hundred other photographers here in New Orleans earlier? No, what I meant by "occupied territory" was the proximity of living people to the photographer at work. Misrach, in his "Desert Cantos" series most significantly, deals with culture's byproducts and aftereffects, the traces of human decisions to inflict damage on landscapes. His series of ocean-side settings, published by Aperture as On The Beach, are well-populated by living beings, but the point of view hovers far above them. Shouting down they probably couldn't hear us, the remove seems so great.
What is haunting about Destroy This Memory is the sense that life is very close-at-hand. Or was, until Katrina rousted everyone except a few who wouldn't budge. This book records the painted messages the displaced have shared with the world on house siding, fences, boarded-up windows, cars, and elsewhere for the reading and image-conveying public. Warnings (including "Looters Shot-Survivors Shot Again" and "I Am Here, I Have a Gun") intermingle with pleas for help, curses, and poignant expressions of loss and vague hope.
There was life here, very close. Will it return? The question seems irrelevant to Misrach's sly iconographic narrative; pay attention to the rhythm of the sequence, which builds, in meta-linguistic waves, from neutral to loaded, and concludes with images of fading faith. This book performs an important function, which is recording the voices of dislocated and distressed New Orleanians. At times Misrach seems indebted to Nathan Lyons, at times Lee Friedlander, and he does educe an intelligent, if dehumanized, thread from the chaos. The photographs aren't brilliant, but they are functional.
Some hullaballoo has been raised over Misrach's use of a point-and-shoot digital camera for these pictures, and the fact that another NOLA book, presenting his standard views made with the large-format camera, is surely in the offing. It struck me as odd that Aperture would release both this oversized yet thin volume (like a bowl of bouillon with one very long al dente spaghetti noodle) almost simultaneously with Dave Anderson's compact (less than half the size and weight of Destroy) and jambalaya-toothsome One Block: A New Orleans Neighborhood Rebuilds. Hedging their bets, perhaps, by offering both famous and substantial takes on the Katrina aftermath. Misrach is donating his royalties from the book to the Make It Right Foundation to help rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward. That act of charity makes it all seem fine, and I hope the book sells well.
George Slade , a longtime contributor to photo-eye, is the programs manager and curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University. He continues to post content on his blog, re:photographica.