Book Review: ‘Destroy This Memory’

Special to the Los Angeles Times

For blocks and blocks they appeared — grids, circles, numerals: In post-Katrina New Orleans, those symbols became indelible shorthand, modern hieroglyphics set down in fluorescent paint, runny marker, even chalk embroidered on the sides of what was left of the city’s built-architecture — duplexes, shotgun shacks, colonials done in miniature. These markings whispered stories, hash marks that baldly communicated with any passerby the tally of how many bodies remained — humans, pets — and where they might be found inside. Those lines, letters and numbers were a chilling account of disaster. But in the first couple of months after Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flood, photographer Richard Misrach began to record a parallel narrative, one that also began to materialize along those walls, fences, husks of rusted automobiles. They were sentences, fragments, warnings and prayers: some dated missives that started then finished weeks later; open letters to the president and, when that didn’t work, to God.

Misrach’s new book, “Destroy This Memory” (Aperture, 140 pp., hardcover, $65), is collection of declarations and evidence — “I Am Alive” — mini-narratives that deepened the story that left along bloated, peeling wood, rusting trailers, crawling up red-brick and green shutters where most likely iron-lace trellises used to stand. Misrach found a confluence of emotions — private talk made public, pleas for assistance (Where are you, Michael?”), prayers, admonishments spiked with 100-proof vitriol (“I died waiting for the … adjuster”) as well as a fair amount of humor in the mix (“Don’t Try. I’m sleeping inside with a big dog & an ugly woman and two shotguns....”). Misrach, who is known for his work considering the relationship between man and landscape, had been returning to New Orleans as a subject since the 1970s. (Artist royalties from the book will be donated to the Make It Right Foundation to help rebuild the city’s Lower Ninth Ward.) He was stirred by talking walls, fences and upturned trailers — the emotional internal landscape they reflected. He began recording what he saw with his 4 MP pocket camera as well as an 8-by-10 large-format camera.

“Destroy This Memory” is a raw testament, shot between October and December 2005, just after the waters began to recede but the emotions had certainly not. Without captions or a contextual introduction to detract from the potency of the photographs themselves, the book is a powerful document allowing survivors to speak eloquently for themselves — even in absentia. The images re-create the post-storm story arc — people at war with the elements, the government, the insurance companies and their own faith. Anyone who has lived in the chaos after a disaster will be familiar with the sentiments, that sense of grappling with something so massive that everything has been upended — the ground might as well be the sky. What’s most striking about “Destroy This Memory” is that though there is not a single photograph of a human being, the imprint of humanity even in its absence is what persists, the echoes of “I Am Alive.” New Orleans, its essence, doesn’t just permeate these images; it’s a force that’s palpable and fully present tense.

George is an L.A.-based journalist and an assistant professor of English at Loyola-Marymount University.