Michael Eastman's unpopulated photographs of empty streetscapes and seedy interiors occupy the same desolate ward as Edward Hopper's diner and Walker Evans' still lifes. Boarded-up theaters, abandoned houses and shabby rooms tell of entropy, imploding communities, empty dreams, and a center that cannot hold. You know the drill. That's why "America," an exhibit of Eastman's photography at Bentley Projects, would have been just an okay show if a Category 4 hurricane had not leveled a major U.S. city the week before the show opened.
But timing is everything. After New Orleans drowned on live TV, some of Eastman's images seem like the work of a prophet. The ambient desolation of his deserted rooms and streets isn't a romantic impression anymore; it's reality. We're in the process of abandoning an entire metropolis, at least for the next six months or so, and Eastman's images give an idea of what it will feel like when nutria and water moccasins are the only inhabitants of the nation's 35th largest city.
At least two of the photos in the show were made in New Orleans, pre-Katrina. Now that the city has become the national symbol of death, despair and failure, the photos are eerie and prescient.
One is a portrait of a shotgun house, the sort of working-class residence now under 15 feet of water in the 130-year-old neighborhoods just outside the city's French Quarter. The small house sags under the weight of time, humidity and neglect. Its ornate trim and scaled-down, neoclassic columns once embodied the pride and aspirations of its owners, who probably believed they had a chance of working their way up from a shotgun house in Tremé to a mansion in the Garden District. In this photo, though, the dream of upward mobility, and the house, have slipped into ruin. The columns have split, the house lists, the tiny patch of yard has gone weedy.
It's not hard to imagine what has become of this house in recent weeks. One has to think its last occupants ended up on the roof hoping a Coast Guard helicopter (or Geraldo Rivera) would pluck them from the ruins of their home. The house, the dreams, the neighborhood, and most alarmingly, the people, were all left behind to sink in a toxic stew.
Another photo, titled Library, New Orleans, shows the interior of a once-grand room; you can imagine it's in a 19th-century townhouse, dripping with lacy iron balconies and covered in a green sheen of mildew, in a neighborhood once home to the city's ruling class and now faded into genteel, tourist-pleasing shabbiness. The oriental rugs on the floor are threadbare and faded; a tacky old purple-and-yellow Mardi Gras crown collects dust next to battered leatherbound books that don't appear to have been opened in decades. A dented, tarnished trumpet sits on the mantel, irrelevant and forgotten. Here is New Orleans in decline: the culture, the learning, the money, and the relevance of a city that was once one of the richest in the nation and became, by the late 20th century, an economic backwater where the poverty rate was triple the national average and the per-capita murder rate was one of the highest in the nation. The photo suggests New Orleans was perched at the edge of obsolescence long before Katrina roared in from the Gulf and inundated its centuries-old streets.
Some of Eastman's images are a little too sweet. Red Ribbon, a photo of an old gumball machine in the foyer of a battered retail store, borders on sticky nostalgia. And the empty log cabin on the golden western prairie in Big Hole Valley is a tad too Marlboro-Man to resonate. You can imagine it hanging over the oversize cowhide sofa in a Santa Fe mansion.
Eastman gives us a clue as to what might have caused all the decay, desolation and emptiness in his photos. In Cairo, we see a row of seemingly deserted 19th-century mercantile buildings standing like tombstones. But wait, there is a sign of life here. There, on a window sill, is a satellite dish. Is everybody inside, hiding out, watching their 42" plasma screen TV? Hello?
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