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