I met Robert Polidori through a photograph he had taken of the Versailles restoration. It captivated me. Seeing so many layers of history in one image was astonishing. So was being spurred to imagine Versailles as a real dwelling defined by the remnants of its inhabitants, and all the changes in history they and it had undergone.
This was the ’90s, when many photographers making art were constructing their own subjects or creating intellectual images that involved visual sleight of hand. The straightforward voluptuousness of Robert’s photo stood in stark contrast to all this. It was this originality and this lushness that enchanted me.
Later, after I got to know him, I invited Robert to visit North Dakota and photograph a town that had once belonged to my grandfather and is—now that the celebrated territories romanticized through legends of the Wells Fargo are a virtual desert—nearly gone. I wondered what his lens would uncover in that supernatural barrenness. Robert accepted. On the first day, we were so busy talking in the airport we missed the plane. On the second, I discovered that Robert fully expected me and Leaf, my Native American driver, to meet him for breakfast, totally awake and smiling, in the motel restaurant at 5:30 am, and to keep going until we lost the sunset’s last ray. To say that Robert is passionately focused is an understatement. He was so intense in his search for images that the final night, while we were having dinner in the same motel restaurant, a man came over to him and said, “I know who you are. You’re the guy who was taking pictures in my backyard this afternoon. I’m the mayor of this town.” I don’t think Robert had even realized we were trespassing.
The Metropolitan Museum commissioned Robert to take pictures of the New Orleans flood disaster. A friend who had grown up there cried when she saw them. She was not alone. The Fall 2006 show in the Howard Gilman Gallery was the most attended photography show in the history of the Met. Robert’s work has an extraordinarily wide, visceral appeal.
Robert’s focus and intensity made him very easy to interview. The difficulty was in deciding where to edit the generosity of riches in all he had to say. And despite the bleakness of his conclusion, I think that Robert transforms the sorrow of his subject with the compassionate beauty he discovers in its form.
Michèle Gerber Klein You were a filmmaker before you were a photographer.
Robert Polidori I used to work in avant-garde film, or what was known as structural film. It all started in 1969, when I was a freshman in college in Florida. Annette Michelson came and showed some films, including Wavelength by Michael Snow, and that changed my life. When I came to New York a couple of months later, she was kind enough to let me stay with her for a brief period. Through Annette I met Jonas Mekas and then I worked at Anthology Film Archives, even before they opened their first location at the Public Theater.
MGK So how did you start making still photography?
RP Well, my films were about the temporality between still and motion. But it really came about because I read a book called The Art of Memory by the late Frances Yates. This book was about ancient mnemonic systems, and rooms play a central role in “memory theaters.”
RP Say, for example, in the Pythagorean School—Pythagoras was into math and spirituality. He used to teach math by sounds—by fractioning lengths of strings or ropes. The students there were not allowed to speak for two or three years. They were taught to memorize empty rooms. A room was a locus for memory. They would memorize the color, doorways, windows, and halls.
MGK They would memorize the landscape of the rooms, develop a visual memory?
RP Yes, and they would place imagenes agentes, roughly translated from Latin as activated images, in the loci. These would be theatrical tableaux. The idea is that the mind has the hardest time remembering banal everyday things, but can more easily recall things that stand out of the ordinary. So they would compose these tableaux in order to remember something. I will give you an example. A lawyer had to memorize the facts in a case where a doctor had poisoned an old man to get his inheritance, and there was a witness. So the lawyer creates an image of two men in a blue room: an old man, semi-reclined in bed, and another man standing over him, who in his right hand holds a cup placed to the patient’s lips. The right hand indicates volition—that is, the doctor willed it, it was not an accident. Between the doctor’s fourth and fifth fingers were the testicles of a ram. The fourth finger was known as the medicinal finger, hence the doctor, and in Latin, testicles and witness are practically homonyms. The image is easier to remember than the facts, and by using a consistent deciphering language you could extract all the facts you might forget because of, say, your busy caseload. Memory was just one of the seven parts of classic rhetoric.
This particular example comes from the Ad Herennium. A Latin copy of that text from antiquity is dated 64 AD, and only fragments of it were still in existence just before the Renaissance. The Ad Herennium is an example of memory systems meant for practical usage. Later philosophers developed memory systems as theistic paradigm theories. Giordano Bruno, the last Catholic heretic burned at the stake, is a notable example. All of this is explained in Yates’s book. This is how I got into rooms, rooms as metaphors for states of being. And practically speaking, rooms simply don’t look that good in films; they look better in photography. When there is nothing else moving in the room, the grain effect of cinema makes the walls buzz as if they were composed of a swarm of bees. It doesn’t look right to me.
Metaphorically speaking, photography does to time what a wall in a room does to time. It’s a kind of slice of time that is transfixed and only very slowly degrades its semblance. Curiously akin to the quantum of time it takes to forget something. I would say that the emblematic photographic image is a picture from inside a room looking out. I think this defines photography. It’s the metaphor for the notion of first sight. What one saw first.
MGK Well, the camera is like a room; the shutter is like the window.
RP Yes, and camera in Italian means room. Anyway, when I realized the psychological importance of rooms and my commitment to them, I wandered away from cinema. There were other books too, Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space talks about rooms and beehives and a set of drawers, all these receptacle kinds of images, and their metaphorical and psychological undertones.
For full text: go to Bomb, Issue 99, Spring 2007.