Tuesday, July 3, 2007


What a nifty art idea: go down to a disaster area, photograph somebody's damaged personal photos, blow them up big, and put them in a white box gallery in nyc and sell them for a couple of thousand dollars.

I have to admit, the smeared pictures of my family i peeled off of the muddy floor of our house looked pretty cool, which is why i scanned them in. I just don't have the emotional detachment to turn them into pure lucre (i'm sorry, of course i mean aesthetic art objects).

Will Steacy is the recipient of my first Katrina reverse grant to the amount of $5000. Congratulations WIll. The reverse grant provides the recipient with the honor of giving back to the community. In this case, i think a donation to the arts council of new orleans might be in order.
Of course, I'm giving poor mr. Steacy a lot of shit, and i don't know a lot about him. He may have been volunteering down here at the time. he may have already donated thousands to the relief efforts. He may even be the victim of terrible tragedy in his own life. I think this does bring up some interesting issues though. I'm a bit fuzzy on the ethics of photography. I'm familiar with sherrie levine's re-photos. But in that case, Walker Evan's initial subjects presumably knew they were being photographed (at least implied consent), and i suspect the original photos were gov't property. In this instance, i doubt the subjects of the photos or the original photographer had given any consent, or had any idea that these moments would be for sale to strangers in nyc. Of course, perhaps it is ok for the onlookers at disaster sites to enter the affected private properties and snoop around for aesthetic moments. I guess some of weegee's photos might fall into this category. to go even further, would it be ok for me to go to the peer gallery, take some photos of mr. steacy's work and sell prints outside for a couple "C" notes. Let me add that i really don't have any ethical problem with most of Steacy's photos. They aren't any different from the billion and a half other artified storm photos i've seen. I'd be interested in hearing what other people think, esp. photographers and lawyers.

Of course, as we all know, Will isn't the only one making money off of katrina. In the past two years, we've all seen plenty of cultural carpetbaggers. What long term repercussions their activities will have on our city is yet to be seen - what do y'all think? Most of us didn't have the time or frame of mind, much less the contacts, to make money off of our own misfortunes. I doubt my flood damaged photos would have sold here in new orleans, anyway.



Gerald Cannon said...

David -

Your insights re carpet bagging artists is a welcome response to an issue that is well known to artists here in NO, but hasn’t been addressed much in print it seems. Some of us have taken our own images as you note, but aren’t “blessed” with the objectivity to suppose we could turn them into art, however lovely the surfaces are. Still, the ravages to our home have become source material to countless voyeurs, artists and otherwise. Many of us cleaned up and rebuilt as onlookers cruised by and took photos and videotape as if we were zoo animals or natural wonders. We’ve seen the “Katrina Tour Buses” full of gawking outsiders.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of many, and that they did their share to help. To some, I’m sure the sense of relief that they were spared due to blind choice or dumb luck is there. When tragedy strikes there are those who run toward the spectacle and others that run away. It seems a fundamental part of our nature.

To those that came unselfishly to aid their national community, I am deeply moved. To those that can’t seem to avoid rubber-necking at a fatal accident, I am angry as I am on the accident free side of a clogged interstate by those who cannot just drive on.

As artists, we cannot help but see the beauty exposed by nature, even if tragic to some humans and other animals. Without people living on the coast, Katrina was not a catastrophe. It was just another natural event that refreshed the land as a forest fire does.

But what of the artists that seem to pick the corpse like scavengers for sustenance in their art careers? They must be taken one at a time as you caution. Some are trying to do what they do best – make art – to give as best they can, or to keep the fading tragedy fresh to the remote public. However, others see the potential to ride a news story to the front lines of the art scene. Such photos as you refer to can be had most any day in any city by following the fire trucks to the scene, or arriving later to scarf up the texturized distortion of objects and images of little consequence to those other than the families that owned them. But, that doesn’t ride the wave that rushes to make art books and exhibitions because the story is hot and/or huge.

So. I suppose that we should not be surprised that in a world where news is entertainment that news shouldn’t be “art”. News was never a moneymaker for the corporations that support it on television. Hence, it had to become just a bit more entertaining to turn a profit. There is no such thing as “a bit more” in corporate business, hence Fox News. I suspect a similar thing populates the money making side of art making. For some, a little more inventive entertainment in the work can pay off, at least monetarily.

I guess the fact that none of this short term profiteering will turn out to be real art is all we artists should be concerned with. That is not true for the “victim” of artists picking the carcass of their ruined personal world to gain a step up in the class structure of the art business. In the end, I think we have too much to do to be that concerned about this part of the tragedies we’ve endured. I, for one, will concentrate on the outsiders that gave more of a damn than our government seemed to.


Anonymous said...

I could not agree with you more! Will Stearcy's disaster "art" profiteering was featured in this month's Harper's magazine (alongside Duncan Murrell's purple, New-Orleans-Disasterville-as- My-Own-Easy-Third-World-Adventure- Complete-with-Sushi-and-Iced-Coffee prose).

Anonymous said...

it's a fine line, I guess.
There was a flood back in 95 - when I was at school at UNO. I had just secured the neighbor lady's garage next door as my first very-own art studio. I was so excited. Then the flood came, and all of my photos were toast. But, they were really cool. I picked one, and I painted it - tried to make an exact duplicate. pretty hard to do - I couldn't ever get it to be as watery or as natural as it was.
Steacy's photos/re-photos are cool. Just like any wet photo. I am torn between wanting any artist to be able to make money, and from feeling like a used victim. it's a fine line, I guess. and I don't really know what side of it I am on.
but, I appreciate the post, and the time to think on it.
peace, love and wet photos,

labelle said...

I agree with your analogy to Walker Evans. A more contemporary one might be the photojournalism I grew up with in the 1960s, National Geographic style. I think there's more consciousness now that it's not OK for first world photographers to make money off of the third world subjects they document. And that's the relationship we have here, with New Orleans' people begging for money. To me, Steacy's photos are insulting because he treats them as just an object. Well, postmodernism is cool but there is a limit to the idea that everything is simply a text. There is a history to these photographs, a personal, painful and political one, and it's simply wrong to leave that out of the picture, so to speak.Who are the people in the photos? What is the story behind the image? Where are they -- did they survive? Should I make a copy of the morgue's death records and sell that as art?


Gary Oaks said...


I have a suggestion, if you are VERY serious about this issue. Immediately go to New York, take photos of all Mr. Stearcy's photos in his exhibit, bring them back to New Orleans, blow them up, and exhibit your own photos of Stearcy's photos-of-photos in a box gallery of your color choice. Send him an invitation.

Gary Oaks

ARTinACTION said...

Even more accurate/better: go to his city and fill it with 8 feet of water. Insure that the water will sit there for 3 weeks and that many things that had been living die in it. Drain the water and ... you know the drill.

When he can't be there for whatever reason (he's had a nervous breakdown or is stuck in Texas or maybe he even died) drive around his city with a fancy camera with a substantial grant and "for the good of the people" take lots of photos, including ones from the inside of his own house, which you will enter indiscriminately when he's not there, because, well, it's public property now isn't it? Come and go and generally make a profit from the whole shebang.

The industry that supports this kind of cycle (event, exploitation, profit) is as accountable/responsible as the artist who plays along with it. Who exhibits the work? What's the entry fee? How much of those profits go to the people who have been exploited? How much does the art work sell for? Who decides that it's critical and important and writes about it and visits it? Who can blame them? Who can't? Did he give prints to the people who owned the stuff he photographed? Are they donated to a local museum (not that anyone here needs to look at yet another fetishization of our trauma)? Is every dime of sales of the artwork going to a charity for Katrina survivors? Does he come down here & teach photography to poor kids? Will the museums that show the work shuttle the people who are connected to the sites photographed from Minnesota or Atlanta or wherever so they can see it and feel first hand that people grieve with them?

Everytime we survive yet another bone crushing trauma (9/11, Katrina, tsunami, the war) I think that we as a culture will have some kind of epiphany and open up to how this system, this way of being in the world, of turning everything into some version of a commodified object, just perpetuates trauma. That we'll open our hearts to a different way of being - more respectful, less selfish, connected versus isolated, affected versus neutral. I feel in many ways "the system" has been shaken up, the community has been "shook up" in an ultimately fruitful and enlightened way. And then I get yelled at by a visiting filmmaker because I tell him that it's inappropriate to indiscriminately film devasted areas where people are - that the camera be turned off and that he just FEEL something versus document it - I have felt the wrath of the outsider because I insisted that it's rude and insensitive to behave as if this land that a crushed house or vacant lot where a house used to be is not public property and that maybe, just maybe, there are some things that trump the artist's license to turn anything into material.

Now as an artist myself, and more importantly as an artist working site-specifically in areas of New Orleans struggling to recover from the levee breaks, I understand that this is a complicated topic and that there is much gray area to be navigated. The key, though, in my experience, is how respectful are we? Am I profiting from someone else's tragedy? How do I really truly justify the work? What motivates me to do exactly this kind of work? What's the intention? Of course I like to think that all of my answers weigh in on the "good" side of the scale - I am constantly doing a hardcore personal inventory to make sure that I am not behaving in any way that is egotistical or arrogant. But the questioning never ceases. I can't speak to the artist written about here but I do hope that perhaps someday he might read this writing and see how his work can affect those of us who are personally connected to the subject of his work feel about it. It would be only fair.

FYI: this idea that "Katrina was a natural event" is sadly mistaken. The result of Katrina was the work of white men, period. It was the result of a failure of the government paid to protect its citizens to do so, etc etc. A federal disater that the government is (should be) responsible for. And one might say that the situation that so many of the citizens of New Orleans were living in that resulted in them dying in violent floods was far from natural.

I think that we as a culture have long since made our choice as to whether or not we are going to live with nature or try to control it. So long as the Mississippi River is being forced to follow a certain path in order to safeguard specific communities and natural resources (oil, anyone?) then the systems created to do that (levees, pumps) had better be state of the art. Otherwise we're a culture of total f'in hypocrites propelled by a death drive so strong that even something like the levees breaking in the force of Katrina won't get us to change our habits. Oh wait, has it?

What I am doing as an artist in this specific context is very very far from "seeing the beauty exposed by nature". It is work motivated by a desire to reveal the beauty that somehow manages to exist despite human beings' every effort to destroy it.

Anonymous said...

Last summer while I was in residency in Los Angeles I went to a gallery where a Portland based photographer was having a show. The work wasn’t hung yet, but there was a glossy tabletop catalog I was able to browse. My first reaction to the beautiful photographs was outrage of the same type that David alluded to. ‘Who is this guy?’ I said to myself, as I recognized the colorful moldy contents of the Rainbow store in St Bernard parish, ‘and who gave him the right to trespass’ I asked myself as I looked at the gorgeous sunset on a defunct refrigerator. I told the woman behind the intimidatingly high desk that I was from New Orleans, I’m not sure why, I guess I thought she might be interested in what was going on down here considering they were showing these photos. I was surprised at how completely cold she was; she really could have cared less, which to my mind added insult to injury because all she was doing was selling the pretty pictures. The pictures were cloyingly beautiful and they made me feel violated. I can’t remember the photographer’s name. I almost said something, and now I wish I had. Maybe impromptu performance is called for in the future when happening upon work like this in galleries: something like breaking into a full on swoon and screaming ‘that’s my momma’s house! What they doin’ in my momma’s house?!. Some thing like that. Perhaps it should be organized rather than impromptu…

courtney said...

Shawn your performance idea rocks. maybe we can corral some "proxy performers" to do it for us in cities all over America..on the same day...on the anniversary!...in whatever galleries are showing such work...hee!

Alternative Arts New Orleans said...

vAlong the same lines of this conversation is this interview that Doug MacCash did with Robert Polidori about his Katrina photos of the interiors and exteriors of flooded homes only 3 weeks after the storm. One revealing comment of Mr. Polidori's :
"My photos are not about "Katrina victims." If you look at my book carefully, you will see that the photographs portray damaged exteriors and interiors of homes at differing times after the Katrina disaster. They are portraits of violated habitats. The book I attempted to make was a photographic testament of what was left of a city after a major environmental disaster occurred. It is a portrait of a city's damaged and vacated exoskeleton."

For so many of us those homes are stand-ins for the people in them. Is this just an emotional, sentimental connection that it seems Mr. Polidori doesn't have?

the other revealing comment:
"I suppose that the karmic implication of this controversy for me is that when one takes an image it doesn't mean that you really own it, it means that you somehow become the moral guardian of its socially perceived implications. The problem is, there are different societies with different "truths." "

Read the rest at Doug's blog