ON THE INSIDE LOOKING IN
Ask anyone interested in modern photography about Robert Polidori, chances are they will tell you that he’s an architectural photographer, one of the greatest, in fact. But that is a label Mr. Polidori actively resists. He will tell you that his real concern is with forms of human habitation. And that is the theme that runs through the dozen or so books of photography he has published to date over a long and distinguished career—work that has taken him from the palaces of Versailles (a renovation project he has tracked over several decades) to the dilapidated streets of Havana and, post-Katrina, the water-logged homes of New Orleans residents or, more recently, to the vacant, trash-filled classrooms of the schools and kindergartens in Pripyat, the town vacated when reactor no. 4 of the Chernobyl nuclear plant overheated and exploded.
Perhaps it would be even more accurate to say that the absence of such habitation concerns him the most. The rooms Polidori photographs are often abandoned, emptied of human presence. (One of Polidori’s earliest projects was taking pictures of apartments on the Lower East Side in New York, whose residents had just died). In an interview, Polidori, pointing to the Italian word “camera” for room, once casually defined photography as a picture taken from the inside—the inside of a room, that is—looking out. Indeed, most of Polidori’s pictures of rooms derive their effectiveness from what the viewer recognizes exists around them—the grass and the trees that still flourish outside the ruined classrooms in the irradiated landscape of Chernobyl, the light streaming through the window on the shattered four-poster bed at 6328 North Miro Street New Orleans. Topographical Histories is different. All the 55 color photographs collected in this book are of interior walls, and they all come from one house, though it’s a special one: one of the oldest half-timber structures in Germany, dating back to the 14th century, in the city of Göttingen in Lower Saxony. Polidori lived right next to it, during his frequent visits to his publisher, the iconic Gerhard Steidl, over a period of eighteen years, but the first time he set foot in the small house at “Düstere Strasse 6”—literally translated, “Dark Street”—was when Steidl asked him to photograph it.
Düstere Strasse 6 was a modest residence, the habitat of poor people, unlike the palaces of Versailles he had photographed, with their silk wallpapers and high ceilings. During the restoration of the small house, modern wall coverings were removed, gradually revealing the original structure underneath. Half-timbered houses start as cage-like structures made of squared timbers, with the irregular squares they form filled by an ancient technique called wattle and daub: lattices of sticks woven together with twigs and straw and plastered over with a mix of clay, wet soil, sand, even animal dung. And though nothing seems straight when you look at them, these ancient houses are eminently durable: Düstere Strasse 6, fixed up and patched over, but never in need of rebuilding, has survived generations of residents. Today it houses the Günter Grass Archive, dedicated to the most famous writer Steidl has published. The perfectly preserved house now serves to enshrine the memory of a writer who for decades, from the novel The Tin Drum to his controversial memoir Peeling the Onion, had pressed fellow Germans to remain mindful of the burdens of their history.
Polidori is up on his phenomenological theory—he likes to cite Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space—and he is, of course, aware of the analogy between human houses and birds’ nests: the shelter against the elements they provide, the warmth and safety they afford, the comforts they offer of prenatal belonging. That analogy is no more transparent than in the close-ups he has taken of wall segments, in which we can see the sticks, the caked-together pieces of straw, the rocks that have been pressed into these walls, the beams, nails, and pegs that hold them together.
In The Descent of Man, Darwin muses on the multiple materials birds drag into their nests—the shells, bones, and lichen they weave into them—not just to fortify their structures but also to make them more beautiful (the bowerbird, one of Darwin’s favorites, has been known to insert the occasional blue parakeet feather for extra effect). Looking at Polidori’s often colorful topographies, one does forget that human hands once shaped these walls. The stray, ripped, jagged fragments of wallpaper that appear in some of the shots, showing flowering plants or abstract leaves, seem random and almost irrelevant next to all these archaic collages of natural material that generate their own stories. The only evidence of purposeful agency in these pictures is perhaps the insect damage visible in the wood of the timbers. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s well-known story “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the narrator, gradually losing control of her mind, imagines a human figure, another woman, moving behind the wallpaper. The redeeming charm of Polidori’s walls is that they have entirely detached themselves from human interference, imagined or real: their craggy, rough, splintered surfaces exist in a world of their own. If we enter it—and Polidori’s photographs invite us to do precisely that—it will be on their terms.
Polidori, in his new book, stays happily inside his chosen nest; he directs his camera at what is immediately around him, often taking multiple photographs focusing on different parts of the same section. The result is that the viewers, paging through Historical Topographies, become progressively familiar with this landscape, the way enlarged inserts in maps take us deeper into the terrain we seek to get to know. We recognize the head of the same nail, the end of the same beam, the same curious islands formed by stray pieces of plaster.
The colors in Polidori’s photographs, ranging from dark ochre to a serene cerulean blue, are artifacts, added in Photoshop after they were taken. Polidori wanted to recreate what he had seen when he spent time in the house, where the walls would reveal their complex composition only after a while, only when his eyes had adjusted to the space. When I came across this explanation, tucked into a small postscript at the very end of the volume, I was disappointed. Perhaps I even felt a little betrayed. But then I remembered my earlier attempt to read these images as maps, rather than as architectural documents, and the special power such maps carry, poetic artifacts that become more real to us than what they seek to represent: “More delicate than the historians’ are the map-makers’ colors” (Elizabeth Bishop, “The Map”). In her poem, Bishop imagines the mapmaker’s delight, and a similar feeling emanates from Polidori’s maps, too. Rendered in luminous, loving detail, looking as if they had just been wiped into freshness by a wet sponge (Polidori’s metaphor), the walls of Düstere Strasse 6, as we make our way through the book, become our walls, too. Polidori’s space, by the time we have reached the end of the book, has become our space—and this is what ultimately humanizes this project.
The last photograph in the book is a black and white picture of the entire house, and it is here that we also get some evidence of human presence. Attached to the entrance door of the Archive is a copy of one of Grass’s drawings, which shows a hand about to be cut by a pair of scissors. We also see the faint outline of a man standing behind a window next to that door. He is on the inside looking out, as Polidori once said all photography should. But none of this really interests us anymore; the exterior of the restored building, after the wealth of wall detail revealed within the book, after all these marvelous photographs taken from the inside looking in, seems almost boring. Spend a few minutes with Topographical Histories, and you will never, I promise, look at a wall—even a simple, white one, in your office, at home, or in the cheap hotel room where you stayed the last time you traveled—in quite the same way again.