The photographer Robert Polidori calls many of the images in his new show “my dendritic city work.” These are images of cities and settlements made by their inhabitants. Last week the show, Ecophilia & Chronostasis, opened at the Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. Polidori has famously photographed the abandoned ruins of Chernobyl, post-Katrina New Orleans , and Havana. Part of the new show features the dense settlements in Mumbai, India. An accompanying book, 60 Feet Road (Steidl), is scheduled for release soon. It’s a remarkable visual documentation of a single block, as well as a precise deconstruction of that act. The book, and the piece in the show of the same name, says: here’s what I saw (let history be the judge), and here’s how captured what I saw. It’s both formally beautiful and almost forensic in its detail. On the eve of the gallery opening, I spoke to Polidori about the show, the making of 60 Feet Road, and his love of India.
MCP: Martin C. Pedersen
RP: Robert Polidori
Tell me about the format of the show.
I was grateful that the Paul Kasmin Gallery let me use two titles, Ecophilia & Chronostasis, knowing that these were a bit longer than what most galleries would generally want. In this case Ecophilia refers to the three large pieces which are exhibited in the larger portion of the gallery, as you enter. It relates to what I sometimes call my “dendritic city work.” Perhaps more correctly, I should call these subjects “auto constructed cities.” This is the term used by sociologists, and urbanists in Brazil, which I’ve sort of adopted.
How do you define “auto-constructed cities?”
It means cities that are built by the hands of their own inhabitants. They’re not built by real estate or government entities, they’re not designed by professional architects and engineers and masons. No, these cities are built by hand by the people who actually live in them. The term, dendritic cities, I used metaphorically, but it’s only applicable to those hilltop settlements, how the paths from one to another are based on dendritic patterns, the way that water flows down hill. So I stand corrected. I now use the term “auto-constructed.” Some people call them slums. Some people call them squatter camps. But this is only true in about half of the cases. It’s hard to come up with a correct-in-all-cases, one-shoe-fits-all label.
Which auto constructed cities are you showing?
They’re all in Mumbai. But I’ve shot many others.
You shot the favelas in Rio more than ten years ago.
Yes, and I’ve been back several times. I follow certain developments, because they all have socio-political challenges that they have to constantly respond to. I’ve been wanting to show this type of work for a while, but in the art gallery context, it’s been difficult.
One prominent gallery director said, “Robert, I know you’re in the avant garde and ahead of the curve, but I can’t show this work because it glorifies the poverty of others.” I said, “It’s not about the poverty of others. Yes, many of these individuals happen to be poor. But what they devise is quite creative.” I look at the construction and development of these settlements as a truly organic process.
As an aside, one of the things that I learned in the work that I did in post-Katrina New Orleans was about the relationship between money, class and the power of individualization. I was quite surprised to discover that the dwellings of those individuals in the lower part of the socio-economic strata were much more individual than the interior dwellings of the middle to upper middle class. Those tended to be pretty much the same. And it’s because sanctioned development tends to be “purchased.”
Do you think think this holds true for Indian society, or is this a uniquely American affliction?
You’ll find exceptions, but I think it holds true for India as well. Once you move into condos, or the development tracks, you’re in a certain “head” as they say. You sort of sign up for a lifestyle and aspire to everything that goes with it.
One of the auto constructed cities in Mumbai that you photographed is Dharavi. Tell us about that settlement.
Dharavi is a predominantly Muslim community. I first stumbled across it about ten years ago while riding in a taxi trying to circumvent some of Mumbai’s brutal rush hour traffic. I remember thinking, What is this? Who lives here? It turns out the neighborhood has evolved into an industrial center for waste recycling. One of the pieces in the exhibit, Sixty Feet Road—it’s the name locals use for a street in Dharavi—shows a huge recycling facility, where workers hand grind plastic waste down to little pellets. If you look carefully at the facade of the buildings, you’ll discover that they’re completely made of recycled materials.
Sixty Feet Road measures about 50 inches wide by 40 feet long. How did you make it?
It was done between the hours of 6:30 and 10:30 am. It’s composed of 22 eight-by-ten plates. Initially I had looked at the facades of the buildings on one side of Sixty Feet Road, and couldn’t choose any one part that was visually more dynamic than another. I was stumped. Finally, I realized that the facade of the entire street was the only ideal subject. But how do you photograph that? Just to look at the site, I had to pan my head 180 degrees, left to right, to take it all in. To actually capture this view, you’d have to be three hundred feet away and use a telephoto lens, which is not possible in this situation where buildings inhabit the other side of the street.
Instead I decided to move my camera position laterally, shot after shot, while giving my frames plenty of overlap, until I had shot the entire street. Each plate was then scanned and composited with PhotoShop, digitally stitched together, to create what I could call a photographic tracking shot. One of the things I like about it is, even in a gallery, you’re forced to get close to it, and physically follow its length by walking, just as I had to when I was there. I like that parallel structure. This kind of play on perspective is reminiscent of Japanese and Chinese scrolls, or certain 18th or 19th century French architectural drawings.
There’s also an added temporal dimension to this piece, because it was shot over a four hour period.
Most photography deals with a single moment, or a single place in time. Here we’re dealing with the compositing of many moments. And this was apparent by the people who were present at the time, looking at me as I was looking at them in a sort of mutual gaze. I didn’t want to edit them out. So we see them in their early morning rituals of washing. It was intimate and interesting.
All of the Dharavi images utilize perspective and photographic strategies used by the remote sensing of satellites, where they scan across the surface of a terrain, and then multiple images are re-composed into a larger whole. It’s essentially a mapping strategy, often used in landscape. Here’s it’s used in an urban context.
Like Sixty Feet Road, a number of the other pieces in the show are composites. Clearly you’re trying to break free of some formal constraints, like traditional framing.
The rectangle used in photography is basically legacy technology from window-frame making. There is nothing sacred or more truthful about the rectangle or square. In fact, lens see spherically. If there’s one form that is naturally more worthy, it would probably be the circle or sphere. And someday I will make circular or oval images.
For decades, when I framed within the legacy rectangle, there was a subconscious drift to make the entire image “pleasing” within the frame. Or perhaps it’s that using quadrilinear perimeters somehow inherently aestheticizes our perception. But when you gaze across a landscape, your eye never sees the entirety of the image. Tracing a straight line anywhere on our globe would yield a 25,000 mile return voyage. It’s nearly impossible to take a picture of the the whole world, and if you perchance succeeded, you might not ultimately see that much.
So here, in this new procedure, I tend to frame the images, in sequential and adjacent pieces, as I scan along the landscapes. During the last few years I enjoyed executing this process where I never see the entirety of the finished composition in one integral view, only to discover it later in it’s re-compositing. This procedure proved fruitful for me because it got me away from ingrained habitual framing tricks that use compositional seduction to please the mind’s eye.
I’m not against beauty. In fact, I have been criticized all of my professional life for making things overly “beautiful.” My answer has always been, “Well, if I make it ugly, will you pay more attention to it?” By using a more scientific method now, it has avoided the excesses of both predilections. To be either too beautiful, which impressionists can’t help themselves, Or too ugly, which expressionists love. The practicality of it is what I found very enticing. I strive to be able to extract a structure from the subject itself.
Last question. You go back periodically to India. What makes it such a rich subject matter for you?
I really do love India. It is one of those places, where either you go there, and it’s horrible and you can’t wait to leave, or you go there and you’re forever entranced and can’t wait to return. Once there I always have the impression of looking at a few thousand years of uninterrupted human history. Traces of time are everywhere, and as far as my perception goes virtually nothing is hidden. So many of their faults are right there on the surface. It’s a natural and cultural ambiance that suits my personal aesthetic. Indians have a way of remaining who they are, yet evolving and adapting. It’s an interesting social experiment. The population is dense. So it’s hard to find virgin territory that hasn’t been trampled by thousands of years of human feet. There’s also certain sociological and spiritual values that I share and admire as well.
But more specifically, as it pertains to my cities work, the Indian cultural and national context provides a great case history to study in our post-industrial time. The Indian nation is gearing up, at a time when many of the original nations involved in the first crop of this industrialization are scaling back from what has come to be seen as the pains of overdevelopment. I was not around in the 1850’s to photograph the steel mills, railroads or the beginning of the petroleum age, with all of the socio-economic migrations that it engendered. But I am alive now and able to capture and record the similar early and virulent forces of industrialization on the Indian sub-continent.
Featured image: a portion of Sixty Feet Road. All photographs courtesy of Robert Polidori and Paul Kasmin Gallery.