Memento Mori

by Phil Harris

"If the drowned have no story, and single and broad is the path to perdition, the paths to salvation are many, difficult and improbable."

Over the last decade, photojournalism and the gallery world have cross-pollinat­ed to produce an unprecedented hybrid.Actual events happening to actual people have always made a slow journey to the world of imagination and myth. We just paddle in a faster, wider stream of con­sciousness these days. With the advent of the most rapid web of commodificationand communications the world has ever seen, by orders of magnitude, no event seems to hav.e time to catch its breathbefore it is packaged and presented to a breathless public. This snatching and selling of bits of the world inevitably leaves out the nuances of context and larger meanings for lack of space. After all, windy explanations of history, reli­gion and geography, take time to piece together, and there is always a more current crisis to manage. Who has time to master every disaster?

Two recent books work against the current hyperventilation over the neatly packaged "story" of human inhumanity. Both follow a time-tested working method: find subject matter that moves you, challenges you and pursue it where it leads, even if (especially if) you have no idea how it will come out. Andrea Modica, perhaps best known for her small volume of striving minor league baseball players, and Treadwell, her in-depth look at one poor family's scuffle for survival, has now chosen to take a deeper, retrospective look into American mythology and community. She recently made a new home in rural Colorado, after years on the East Coast, and stum­bled onto a nearby excavation on the grounds of a state mental hospital. The human remains that had been found were century-old mental patients, many of whom were sequestered in the (then) Colorado Insane Asylum because of the side effects of syphilis. The skeletal remains were buried without identifi­cation; they were cattlemen, miners, ranch hands, the salt of the western American earth. Modica elected to spendthe better part of a year photographing the anonymous skulls of these people (most of whom were men). Her book gives us images of about three dozen skulls, with annotations by the site's forensic anthropologist. The bones are photographed plainly, by avail­able light, with a relatively shal­low depth of field. The effect is rather lovely, like an aerial view of the vapors rising over a craggy, fissured landscape on a frosty morning.

As the skulls and their desiccated captions pile up, the intent of Modica's theme with variations begins to shine through. Yes, this book is meant as a meditation on death. But more incisively, we are drawn to the traces of individual human lives that remain even long after the thoughts, expressions, gestures, eccentricities and memories we attach to ourselves and each other are transmuted into air and dust. By concentrating on this discrete group of unknown people, the artist asks us to follow in Hamlet's alas-poor-Yorick footsteps, asking where the good looks, the good ideas and the good intentions go when we are gone. On the other hand, these particular people, shunned and feared when alive, shine through in Modica's photographs: they are finally reunited with their human relations, and at peace.

Michael Kenna has steered a different course to a similar destination. Kenna is known for 25 years for his atmospheric images of the nighttime world and more recently for photographing Michigan's Rouge River auto plant, formal Euro­pean gardens and his child's kindergarten classroom, among other exotic locales. Kenna quietly made numerous photographic trips during the 19905 to the remains of the Nazi death camps, both infamous and obscure, throughout Europe. This in itself is a formidable project. But there have been a surfeit of Holocaust books over the last 50 years. What more can be said? Are we not blinded to the original Holocaust by now, particularly when there have been so many calls for "cleansing" since the Third Reich pointed the way?

Somehow Kenna manages to say, or see, things slightly differently than his predecessors. Like Modica, he uses varieddepth of field to powerful effect, invert­ing our expectations when we encounter the usual barbed wire, converging traintracks, or ominous chimneys, reawaken­ing their poetic power. His use of light (limited as it is in some of the locations), as always, is sensitive and restrained. In fact, restraint is the keyword in the whole enterprise. Kenna shows us the apparatusof industrialized murder in small frag­ments (although his montage of dissect­ing tables is something of a show-stopper),and, like Modica, he works to initiate a cumulative question in our hearts as we turn the pages. We seem to zoom in, from the ash piles, ash pyramids and ash ponds (human ash in all cases) to the mass latrines, to the open-doored ovens and threadbare prison furniture, down to the fine details of a row of hypodermics and one false leg on a pile of prostheses. The horizonless scope of the Nazi project is impossi­ble; we can only sense the magnitude of the whole through the bounded eye of individual victims. Somehow, Kenna's steady inventory of the apparatus of death leaves one calm, reflective, as if the scars of bygone suffering could be smoothed by the artist's vision, the depth of loss measured by the clicks of the closing shutter.Kenna and Modica face the same struggle: how to give a face to people, long dead, whose identities have been deliberately erased? How to reani­mate their emotions, and how to reacti­vate ours in the face of such profound silence? In both cases, the artists have chosen to believe in art's power over entropy, of memory over apathy, of imag­ination over death. Their books map out for us the limited understanding the liv­ing can have of the uncertainty in which we must live — and which we are, equal­ly and indivisibly, bound to leave.

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