Saturday, December 8, 2007

The Ninth Floor by Jessica Dimmock


Photographers have bridged many different social gaps throughout the history of the medium. From Edward Curtis and the Native American Indian to Walker Evans and the Burroughs family in Alabama to Eugene Richards and crack addicts in East New York, these photographers have found the trust and consent of their subjects to use invasive means in which to record life. I should say invasive and potentially harmful as photography had lost its innocence long ago. We have become suspect to the camera’s presence and now look upon photographers with a certain amount of suspicion. (Ed Ruscha in an interview once said that photographers in the 1950’s used to be looked upon as either “geeks or pornographers.”)

Somehow, the camera provokes the subject to think of the lowest and base intention of the photographer. If a man photographs an attractive woman on the street, he is thought to be doing so because he is a ‘pervert’ and photography is his only way to ‘possess’ her. Or in different light, if one photographs on the street, many subjects pounced upon may be concerned that fun is being poked at their expense. After all, how many horrible street photographs have been simple one-liners whose punch line relies on the subject’s momentary awkwardness?

In the case of photojournalists documenting the world’s harsh realities of drug addiction or homelessness photography does not somehow miraculously escape the fact that, regardless of the photographer’s good intentions, photographs leave the viewer to judge the subject and the subject has no recourse for defense. This is where a subject could appear to be used. While the photographer is praised for their ability to live among ‘the other,’ the subject is left potentially hanging in the wind.

Jessica Dimmock’s book The Ninth Floor published by Contrasto is another example of a photographer gaining entree into the lives of the dark and secretive world of drug addicts.

For approximately three years, Dimmock photographed the residents of a drug den located in Manhattan’s flat iron district. Gaining entrĂ©e through a chance meeting with a cocaine dealer, she follows and describes the main characters as if she and her camera were invisible. We are compelled to look as the residents shoot up, nod off, fuck (love is not being made), fight, become hospitalized and somehow avoid death. The depravity of the surroundings, an apartment trashed through neglect, the owner who is an addict himself with no control over his home, the blatant picturing of self destruction, is all truly nauseating.

Nauseating and frightening for I am completely afraid of her subjects. Jesse, Rachel, Dion, Mike and others project a street knowledge and a carelessness of attitude that will evoke fear in most viewers. They display a look of unpredictability in their eyes which sets the course for unease and tension.

Dimmock’s pictures are devoid of the tell tale language usually spoken by photojournalists. This may be because Dimmock was still a student when she started her project and thankfully she had not been poisoned by too many references to the likes of other journalists or documentarians. She seems to be responding quickly to the happenings and that directness, without pretentious ‘picture-making,’ is her strength.

It is Dimmock’s avoidance of the easy conventions of this genre that is important. This is one aspect that I am very critical of in other works of addicts like Eugene Richards’ Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue. His book is regarded as a great achievement due to the dynamic imagery and for Gene’s ability to enter this secretive world of cocaine addicts. His getting the ‘in’ was an amazing achievement but his ’dynamic imagery’ is far too stylized for me to relate to the realness and tragedy of the situation. Gene’s ultra close-ups and splayed perspectives lend themselves closer to the language used in comic book illustrations than a language that represents reality. In fact, when I look through that book its self-consciousness constantly reminds me more of Gene Richards, the photographer, than the subjects. It may be a disturbing thought but I believe that when photographers look at that work, they may be responding more to Gene and his photography than to the subject. Dimmock avoids being present. She becomes the fly on the wall and sets no artificial barrier between us and the witnessing of events.

The other complicated territory that Dimmock’s book avoids is where some of Gene’s photos cross the line on what we should see and when it might be best to put the camera away. It probably relies on your political sway as to how you digest many of these images but I am not sure I actually need to see a black woman about to humiliate herself by fellating a man for drug money while her child hugs her back. Yes, arguably the world dealt that card to Gene but does he really need to play it? That picture gives image to the stereotype of irresponsibility at the full expense of that woman‘s dignity.

Ultimately, the hardest thing for me to overcome with this type of work is that it always seems to give image to our mental laundry list of what we would expect when imagining a drug addict’s life. Besides the specific facts provided by the photographs, how much is my understanding of the subject being pushed into more complex territory?

The complicated territory in Dimmock’s book will be navigated by way of our judgment. Dimmock focuses mainly on Jesse, whose long-term use of heroin has drastically weathered her former beauty. She, unlike the others, wears a look of sadness in her eyes that may be read as a desire to clean up. Jesse is the only character whom we might care for enough to wish for her escape. But as the book ends, she is in the hospital and still shooting up right in the bed. In the last picture, she finally engages directly with the camera and though her look we suspect that sadly there is little hope and she will take the disease to the grave.

Rachel and Dion on the other hand, come across as two pathetic and hopelessly wasted lives that will always cause distress to others through their destructive behavior. They may have the disease just as Jesse does but their selfish and decadent behavior fuels a resentment towards them that is not present in the photos of Jesse. Perhaps because these two are shown to have each other for support and Jesse is mostly alone but our anger towards these two reaches fever pitch when Rachel becomes pregnant and gives birth. One image of the couple with the newborn on a train provides a horrifying forecast of the baby’s doomed fate. See what I mean about passing judgment through photographs?

The book is inventively designed with many gatefold images and pages of mini-sequences that keep the book interesting. The paper choice is well thought out and the printing is good. Dimmock adds a 'photographer’s note' of a few thousand words that give some insight into her relationship with her subjects and Max Kozloff offers one of his more enjoyable and eloquent introductions.

I have raised the question before of who the audience is for books of this sort. Not that I think the work should be hidden, a book is a natural and perfect vehicle, but it is a world that I do not wish to participate in even voyeuristically. Because of Dimmock I have been given a taste of life on the ninth floor of 4 West 22nd street and I have found it bitter and so nauseating that I have permanently shut the door.

This is a decent book that I will be happy to never open again.


Book Available Here (The Ninth Floor)

Buy online at the ICP

Buy online at Contrasto

14 comments:

Michael David Murphy said...

Your paragraph that begins, "the other complicated territory..." is really well-honed. I've never read a photographer who's voiced that kind of opinion, and am really encouraged to read yours, here. Keep it up.

Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

Yes, it is a well honed paragraph, but one with which I disagree. The picture you go on to mention is, IMO, one of the stronger ones in that book. Stronger in the sense of getting across what the life of the people involved is really like. No drama, no fancy photographic tricks, just plain ordinary routine ugh.

As to dignity, one could argue that either way. The alternative of the case that you present might be to say that the woman was showing that she still had some control over her life by agreeing to be photographed. In any event, dignity is something that a person either has or doesn't have. It isn't something that is dependent upon the viewer. That's just stuff in our minds.

Stan B. said...

Bit confused here. Hugo's pictures were lacking because the dramatic content was not matched with equally dramatic composition. Richards' photographs are faulted because the dramatic content is, in fact, dramatically composed!

No accounting for personal taste...

Mr. Whiskets said...

Stan,
You are a bit confused with my argumemnts.

I fault Hugo because the pictures are all the same (IE: Think of a jello mold). I actually never care about 'dramatic composition'(I never used those words). That has its own set of problems (visual gymnastics etc...see my post on Mark Steinmetz and Paul D'Amato). My argument was that Hugo keeps making the same picture over and over again.

My argument with Richards and other photographers in the eighties was that they were employing a style and language in making photos that was a bit forced. The use of wide-angle lenses and the closer-than-humanly-possible and drama-stressing approach leaves me more impressed with the photographer's acrobatics than the subject.

I kinda see a huge difference there. No??

Jeff Ladd said...

Colin,

Thanks for the comments.

This is what I was getting at with the complex territory stuff. The shocking thing in that picture by Richards is that the kid is right there exposed to what is about to happen. I read that as such an act of irresponsibility (almost close to child abuse) that I lose any sense of caring about the plight of the woman and dismiss her as nothing but a stupid 'crack-whore' because of my momentary anger towards her. Fucking up your own life is one thing, fucking up another's due to your disease is another.

Same goes for the two dopes that have the baby in Dimmock's book. They couldn't possibly be prepared or self-less enough to clean up and bring that baby up in a safe and healthy environment.

Now of course...these scenarios and opinions are all going on in my head as you mention (rant above included). When looking at photographs...that is where all of this content gets processed into judgment. Who knows, maybe the two people I just described as 'dopes' could turn out to be great parents. Just like the woman fumbling with the belt of her client could have had a momentary pause of desperation and sheltered the kid from the act to follow.
Photographs often cause you to pass judgment without knowing the actual facts.

Colin [auspiciousdragon.net] said...

Jeff,

Familiar with Larkin's work?

http://www.artofeurope.com/larkin/lar2.htm

Arnold said...

One liners are especially often to see in the 'streetphotography ' site of 'in-public'.It's a club of mostly british photographers who undermine the prejudice that Brits supposed to have wit.

Jeff Ladd said...

Colin,

Thanks for the tip. I can run with that stuff.


Arnold,

I'm a part of that club but try to avoid the one-liners.

rg said...

The only sentence I am confused about is why is the book the natural and perfect vehicle for this work?

I'm conflicted. In some ways I think that was the most voyeuristic part. Viewed once in magazine or on a wall it is informative and emotion inducing. Great work. To put it on a shelf? What's the point. Then again, a book can be viewed in comfort and private, for intimate reaction and perhaps sterner emotion. While the work comes down on the safe side of sensationalism, I think the mere act of publishing it as a book is gaudy and tawdry, at least on the timescale of my eyeballs. No slur on Jessica Dimmock, I must say.

[to the defense of in-pub, I enjoy the wit. I did a commission for the designers of JM's Wounded and scored a copy in the process, otherwise I'd have never known about it. It's a shame such non-sponsored work doesn't receive enough recognition.]

double E said...

what about Larry Clark's TULSA?

Stan B. said...

Jeff- Thanks for the clarification (told ya I was confused).

Dimmock's low key, fly on the wall approach presents a day in the life, while Richard's in your face yells out- Whoa! Look what you're doing here- that's some life ending bad shit!

Both are valid, though I readily admit to being a fan of Richard's compositions, and I think his laying it all out to see quite necessary. Is there anything that shouldn't be photographed? Yes, and I think Mr. Richards drew the proper line how and when he did.

As a minority, I've struggled against stereotype all my life, and as an "inner city" school teacher have witnessed the aftermath of generational drug addiction, it's impact on families- and the extreme denial involved throughout. Unfortunately, photography is much more adept at portraying an individual's self destruction than society's jaded neglect and purposeful indifference. And the denial is thick and heavy on both counts.

I've seen plenty of images of gangsta wannabees, etc posing and frontin' for the camera of a photographer that "doesn't pass judgement." I also think many of these images necessary- but with Richards you do get the moral sense to it all. The lives of Dimmocks' addicts are, in fact, seen more at a distance. They're in bad shape, but there going at it day to day (and in a higher rent district)- maybe, just maybe... Richard's addicts have all the power and intensity of iconic religious images, but you sense these people mad, and... doomed.
His photographs are testament to that fate.

PS- Didn't mean to put any words in your mouth or place you on any particular "side" in any of the above. And also failed to mention the consequence of how color can influence composition...

Jeff Ladd said...

Double E,

I didn't mention Larry Clark because he didn't need to bridge any social gap to photograph. He was also a drug addict so he was in anyway. Great book though.

Jeff Ladd said...

RG,

It's my belief that books are the perfect vehicle for any body of photographic work.

rbstphoto said...

I just looked at this book with a student last week and we both agreed that when a photographer tackles a subject like this - drug addition - she/he has a responsibility to, at least, say something about drug addiction and its roots - is the addiction causes by a lack of employement or is it just a additive need that cannot be explained? As I learn more, I strongly feel that any photographer who records things like drugs, AIDS, poverty, violence, classes higher and lower, death, etc - must be responsible enough to talk about the social meaning behind the photos and their place in society - their causes and origins - whatever they are. They should be responsible enough to discuss things that might help fix the problems, even if the subjects don't want help - like here. If you don't do this as a photographer, all you present the viewer with is a voyeuristic thrill - Robert Stevens