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Aug 31, 2006

Your Turn: Something That Isn't There




(click any for full size)

I spent a month on the Gulf Coast in January working on a story for National Geographic Magazine, published this month in a 24 page article. The idea was to take a look at the coast months after the storms, and see what, if any, progress had been made to try and get reconstruction going.

What I saw was depressing and unsettling. Many areas were virtually untouched since September; it was as if you had been dropped into dead zones which had been frozen in time. I was, as it happened, in Atlanta at Home Depot headquarters just about the time that Rita hit western Louisiana – the last week of September.

As we watched in their “crisis center” the movement of the storm, and the local reactions to it, the one surprising thing I learned was that right after Katrina, the usual “morning after” rush of shoppers to Home Depot to buy the things they needed for repairs never materialized. It was the first time anyone at Home Depot could remember (and they have all the numbers to back it up) when there wasn’t a rush to “fix things up.”

The reasons we now know. Hundreds of thousands of people either had left town, or, in too many cases, were unable to return to homes which had totally been destroyed. It was unlike anything that has ever happened in my lifetime in this country.

Storms hit every year, some homes are ruined, but there is always a reason for that “next day” rush to the Home Depots of this world: people are fixed on staying where they are, and want to start the reconstruction process as soon as possible. In New Orleans, and other towns across the coast, there was simply nothing to go back to. Nothing to repair. Nothing to fix. Nothing to work on. Nothing to hit a few boards into in order to keep the water out.

It is difficult to photograph something that isn’t there. Sure, you can see damage, and in many places it was an obvious and stark reminder of what had taken place. But when there is nothing left, you will be pressed to find a way to show that barren quality in a photograph.

--David Burnett.  August 12, 2006.

David Burnett is one of the deans of American photojournalism.

He co-founded Contact Press Images in 1976 and, over the years, has produced outstanding and well-known work for almost every major American and European print publication.  He was a leading source of news imagery during the Vietnam war, and this year, always the contemporary, he (along with his eloquent wife, Iris) became a full fledged member of the blogosphere.

In the extended quote from his blog, David refers to his photo spread in the August edition of National Geographic.  Using his cherished large format Speed Graphic, the shallow depth of field created a particularly unusual effect.  With Katrina's impact already other-worldly, Burnett's images add the impression that barely-recognizable automobiles might have been twisted inside a diorama, or that the scars wreaked upon the landscape might have taken place in (or else, actually left behind) a toy world.

I was quite moved by these images.  My reaction, however, was almost purely visceral.  My question is, what is it that these images accomplish that enhances, rather than diminishes or minimizes the poignancy of the devastation?  (And, since I've blogged incessantly this week about Bush's pathological return to the Gulf, is there something inherent in Bush's alienation from the disaster that makes the alienation in these images even more compelling?)

I realize a lot of the readership might already have gotten a jump on the last summer weekend.  Given that David has leant permission to The BAG to post these images, however, I am quite interested in your reactions.  It's also a great opportunity to hear from those of you, loyal readers, who have otherwise been tentative to jump into the thread.

You can view the extended "Aftermath" series here.

(images: David Burnett/Contact for National Geographic.  2006.  Used by permission.)


It is difficult to photograph something that isn’t there. Sure, you can see damage, and in many places it was an obvious and stark reminder of what had taken place.

It's not obvious that every one of those refrigerators was once an active focus of a residence, that people returned to them all day for snacks and meals and sometimes, just to look. All those refrigerators quit working on the same day. Before Katrina they were needed, now they're not.

Banks would have you believe they are bastions of security and stability. The Hitchcock(?) Bank passes that bar.

I dont mean to sound callous (although all artists are in a sense, lapping at the world's tragedy for their own expression, seeing cameras rise up in their mind in the midst of any disaster, no matter how terrible) but the place is a photographer's wet dream.

I don't see why it is pointed out that the large format must = shallow D.O.F....You can bring that about with any manual camera. But I do agree it brings something to the photos. Perhaps it is that with everything in focus, there is just too much to fix upon. You'd need to be standing there, in the fractured lap of the ruins, to take all that in. But with the shallow DOF, your eye sort of settles, as if lighting down from a sodden dream, upon one or two destroyed pieces of a life. The softness provides both a feeling of sadness, as well as an ironic tenderness, in all the violence. Perhaps it is the contrast there that brings out the destruction so poignantly.

Maybe its just me and my eyes playing tricks on me. Whatever they are photographed (the blurring) is making the pictures look fake.

What I mean is like in the old movies where it switches to a model of boat/plane/building that is about blowup/etc.

The car for example to me looks like a matchbox car buried in a sandpit. The fridges in the front don't seem to sync in depth to the rest of the picture and the building likes like it could of easily of been photoshopped into a beach scene.

Not saying they are fake, just how they are shot is triggering my brain that way (don't know why).

First, thank you so much for turning us on to Iris and David's new blog. What a treasure and pleasure it is.

As for what makes these images so compellingly, viscerally poignant -- I don't have a clue, technically. I don't know from f-stops, apertures, shutter speeds or lenses.

I first thought the term "shallow depth of field" was a misnomer, because I am gut-pulled directly INTO the deep center of each and every image here. Not unlike Alice in that Wonderland thing she did. "There's nothing 'shallow' ABOUT this," I kept thinking, as I sat here reduced to Katrina-related-tears yet again.

But then I got it. Perhaps the shallow depth of the field surrounding the focal point allows the eye to let go of the field, and focus only on the subject that the photographer wants us to see. Thus allowing us to 'hear' the message he or she is intending to communicate, via the focal point. It's like -- the background noise is stifled so the pure message can be released cleanly, and heard without distortion.

All photos shot with anything other than a large format Speed Graphic now seem busy, distracting and nearly exhausting to view. (Especially if they're of George and Laura doing the nauseating Katrina Hype Tour '06.)

David and his camera should be designated a National Treasure.

I guess that will have to wait until Bush leaves office.

Wow, I've seen many shots where that kind of shallow depth of field is created artificially (in Photoshop, for example), and I love how it makes everything look like a toy or something from a model train set...

I've never seen someone use it to such powerful emotional effect, tho, or capture directly it on film.

Notice how the vigneting on the picture of the car looks like shadow from holding a camera too close to the ground? How that reinforces the effect?

I also see that the zone of focus is not flat. It's particularly evident in the gallery on a picture of mudcaked church benches. The cakes are in focus closer on the center bench than on the sides, which calls attention to the center, and makes the image almost 3D.

I'm in awe of people who can wield a tool like this. This isn't large format just for the sake of huge neg real estate...

Thanks for sharing!

What does that very shallow depth of field do, exactly? For me it is supremely unsettling. It makes the real seem unreal in a way that ultimately reinforces the painful reality of it all. Brilliant.

Simon says, "Not saying they are fake, just how they are shot is triggering my brain that way (don't know why)."

For me, my experience with b-movie visual effects "colors" my emotional reaction: I'm more detached because such focus has been evident on poorly-made monster slock.

But that's just me.

Boing-Boing ran a series of articles on different techniques manipulating depth of field for striking effects. Special lenses, Photoshop, and tilt-shift photography are mentioned.

Jan 27, 2006, Jan 30, 2006, 27 Feb 2006

The Metairie Home Depot and Lowes were packed all through October and well into November.

(Blending the thread of the DoF and the first comment, about refrigerators having been the heart of the house.)

No sentient human being can contemplate what happened to NO and the rest of the Gulf Coast without feeling some level of heart-freezing fear. The realization that these disasters can occur to us, and our only commitment as a society will be to pick up the bodies/debris (maybe), then construct something more pleasing (with far fewer black folk in the case of NO) as a result.

Look at that car, and those refrigerators again. What family pictures and kid art used to hang there? When my wife and I were contemplating evacuation in the face of the Cedar fire here in San Diego, we scraped the pictures on the refrigerator and bulletin boards first, and gathered our financial papers second, and loaded our faithful cars with these and our pets. We knew there were places to run to because we could outflank the fires (maybe?). Now imagine surviving a night of howling wind and rain, only to find the water running in, implacable and unstoppable.

These images speak to the distancing our society has done, the responsibilities we are shirking. It was too hard to build the levees right, and too easy to dump the burden on state and local governments. The pictures of the flooded yellow buses are easy to print, but it's hard to backtrack to see who owned the buses and who had the authority to release them for evacuation duties. Who would pay for the fuel? Who would ensure that the buses would not overheat stuck in miles-long lines headed north?

Planning is hard, expensive and time-consuming, three things our Federal givernment is allergic to, and thus will not only shirk, but refuse to fund at the state and local levels. There are no photo ops at a week-long conference at the Baton Rouge Holiday Inn coordinating evacuation plans among the parishes who probably all hate NO (doesn't every state have a big city/rural county fued going on? I know CA sure does.). No photo ops, just long days of hard work, and even harder work when you get home making sure everything is in place. But that's what adults do, they work to make their world better and safer.

Otherwise you have a child's view of the world. David Burnett has given us a childlike view of the horror. Maybe that filter works for some, particularly in the Bush Administration. But for me it just another reminder of the worldview that got us into so many horrible situations in the last five years.

I thought of Thomas the Tank Engine. Watched a LOT of Thomas when my son was small....

I think this comment nails it, though...

What does that very shallow depth of field do, exactly? For me it is supremely unsettling. It makes the real seem unreal in a way that ultimately reinforces the painful reality of it all. Brilliant.

Posted by: caraf | Aug 31, 2006 at 08:16 AM

These photographs rival the power of those taken in Germany in the aftermath of WWII bombing: the total devastation, psychologically overwhelming, nothing recognizable,few landmarks left to give former residents orientation to their former world.

But, without taking anything away from the people who suffered this terrible storm, the resiliancy to begin again does not rival that of the Germans in their tragic circumstances. I think that it is because it was Nature which did this, and the power of that, compared to the worst that humans can do with bombs is so much greater. And, this is a region of the country which is very religious, so there must have been doubts, that God had somehow let them down. Of course, Nature had its fury, but, in the case of New Orleans, the US government was a partner in the "letting down."

These pictures are very tender: the lighting, the focus, the subject matter. They "pull" you in.

It's the shallow depth of focus, something you rarely see these days with the advent of automatic focus cameras.

The sharp focus in the foreground literally pokes you in the eye and calls attention to what Burnett wants you to see.

Lately, it's been stylish to use this kind of focusing in music videos, Nine Inch Nails has a guy that does videos for them and a few others that are shot like that.

What I find so striking about the diorama quality of especially the photos of buried cars and the two shirts hanging inside a house is that it makes them seem as if someone has carefully arranged them this way. The shirts, specifically, makes me think of a doll house, where someone painstakingly found or made tiny hangers and ties.
And herein lies the images' inherent cruelty: Who would go to the trouble of creating something so horrific and sad? This, juxtaposed with our usual associations with dioramas or toys--that they are idealized versions of perfect, controlled scenes--only makes the reality of the photos more poignant.
To this is added the far sadder layer of context that, in fact, there was a giant hand assembling these scenes--the hand of the government's incompetency, negligence, and inhumanity.

the shot with the refrigerators triggered a meditation upon the fragility of our modern infrastructure. each of these refrigerators was built in a factory, delivered via cargo ship/train/big-rig semi to an appliance store, purchased on credit by a family, delivered to their house or apartment via automobile and plugged into an electrical outlet. the outlet delivered power, generated miles away and delivered over high-capacity transmission lines, in precisely regulated quantities. each refrigerator sat for months or years, using the electricity to drive a heat pump cycle of refrigeration to keep food (similarly produced, shipped, purchased, and delivered) cold.

then the storm came.

the electricity went away when the transmission lines went down, so the food spoiled. the water rose and destroyed fans and motors. maggots and mold ruined them for future use, so they had to be collected and destroyed. each of the fridges in this graveyard is a 45-cubic-foot headstone marking a household decimated by the colossal "outside context problem" presented by the storm.

more on the individual refrigerators:

The car hood with the collection of all the refrigerator magnets seems like a last sad touch of New Orleans street gaiety.

margaret: what you said has some validity, especially in the sense that when the devastation is at the hand of nature, one is left with no one with whom to be angry. One can be angry at an enemy and a certain 'I'll show them' attitude takes over and the rebuilding can begin. But how can one be angry at the forces of the planet. I suppose one could, but it is such futile emotion that when reality sets in, perhaps it is easier just to walk away.

Also, don't forget that Germany (at least the west part) had the Marshall Plan, which meant REAL aid, not just sub-sub-subcontractors. Other countries offered to send aid immediately to NOLA, but that would have further shamed the Cheney administration and they would have none of it. Even the Coast Guard sent ships with supplies and a hospital ship was at the port. All were refused and turned away by our beloved federal leaders. There surely must be a particularly nasty spot in hell waiting for them all.

That's about all I can write about this subject because it just makes me too angry. I watched a couple of programs on Katrina over the weekend and I almost punched out the TV.

Oops, I got so wound up I forgot the photos. Look at his whole set on the link. They are beautiful in themselves. And I agree with the poster who enjoyed the photographer's blog. Very well done.

The town where I grew up had a major fire in 2000. The destruction was stunning, but not even a fly on a rooftop compared to the Gulf Coast after Katrina.

I took many photographs, in an effort to give a sense of the fire, not just the intensity of it but the capriciousness of it.

I suppose there is caprice in a flood too (not much), but fire purifies, and water putrefies. The horror of what remains is magnified by the rot.

Both transform, but in different ways.

It is really impossible to convey the magnitude/scale of this sort of destruction in photos. So every aspect of the craft/art of photography that can be used to bring forward the overwhelming emotion--helplessness,hopelessness, humanity, nature, must be employed.

The other thing I know from my experience is that fire-town is still in the process of rebuilding, six years later. The time it will take to rebuild the Coast is inestimable.

The tragedy is really incomprehensible.

I have been in at least three hurricanes. The days after, without electricity, or any kind of services can be frustrating, even infuriating. I can not imagine a year spent in such filth and ruin. It truly boogles the mind.

Interesting comments about the shallow depth of field. It is an unignorable and unsettling effect to be sure, but I wonder why *it* is the focus of the discussion. What is it about the Katrina devastation that makes us mute?

My immediate reaction to these photographs was to be stunned by their late-afternoon beauty, hopeless sorrow, and surreal waste. But I've had to take time to think about them before commenting. David Burnett says, "It is difficult to photograph something that isn’t there," yet he has captured the impossible: timelessness and loss. Not just the personal loss suffered by the people whose houses blew off the foundations. Not just the loss of property and shelter, memories and keepsakes, livelihood and neighborhood. He managed to evoke the loss of life: the "dead zone" as he calls it, "frozen in time," the utter annihilation of human vitality and identity. Nature is alive and well, but the people who are not in these photos will never, ever be back.

Why are we made mute by Katrina? I think because, as these photos may show, Katrina revealed the death of our *country,* not just the places pummeled by the wind and water of the hurricanes. We know our country has been ransacked and devastated exactly like what these photos show, and even after Bush finally leaves office, we have no idea if we can ever recover. My guess is we can gauge the country's health by watching the recovery progress of the Gulf states.

Remember how blatantly and irresponsibly racist the media coverage of the storm's aftermath was? Out of control black people raping and murdering and looting? *Shame* on the media *all over again* for NOT acknowledging the anniversary of their own inexcusable disaster of reporting.

And thank you, David Burnett, for sharing your amazing, haunting work with BAGnewsNotes.

The first few times I looked at the top picture, I was seeing it as a piece of a car that had been blown around and ended up there on top of the sand. It took me a while before I realized it was an entire car buried in the sand.

The refrigerators are fascinating; I hadn't heard anything about them before. I'd like to see more photos of the car with refigerator magnets. And thanks for that link, ahpook, showing the refigerator graffiti.

The photo of the bank looks like an abandoned movie set. That bank looks really out of place.

RTBAG: "What is it about the Katrina devastation that makes us mute?"

I looked at these photos yesterday, and at the same time I had a window open with a link to an organization called "Shoes That Fit". (I think it was mentioned at Huffington Post.) It seems like a wonderful organization, handling donations for individual students who need shoes and other clothing items for school. But at first I assumed this was for students in some country in the "developing world". When I saw all the schools in different states of the U.S., I just sat here wondering how this could be in America. How could it be that children in the so-called richest, most powerful country in the world, don't have shoes that fit and basic clothes for school?

How could it be that in this country, the aftermath of Katrina played out the way it did? How could it be that in this country, 40 million people have no health insurance? Why ARE people mute?

Correction: I just saw new estimates from the Census Bureau which say that it's more like 47 million people without health insurance.

Can you see the parallels between these shots and other "Civilizations of the Past" archaeology digs?

Car <--> Pompeii
Fridges <--> Terra Cotta Soldiers in China
Bank <--> The Acropolis

I've always mused on the impermanence of our manmade world. Nature always takes things back eventually, but how will this come to pass for structures that are so grand and built as if they are permanent?? Will the weeds in the cracks of our sidewalks really overcome the tallest of the skyscrapers?

These pictures provide a little glimpse of the archaeology digs 50,000 years from now.

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