Friday, 19 September 2008

Photographs of the South Bronx

The first few sentences, sometimes the first few paragraphs, usually do it for me – or they don’t. In any book, and that includes photo-books.

Lisa Kahane’s “Do Not Give Way to Evil” starts like this: “The past is never over. Image outlives fact.” It hit me, immediately: Yes, exactly, this is it, so true, that is precisely why pictures are more telling than words.

Images carry feelings, and these we remember – this is why images are so powerful.

The book shows photos of the South Bronx between 1979 and 1987, “not just another neighbourhood but another realm, visible but incomprehensible, an urban wilderness actively populated by ghosts.”

What is true for the first few sentences is likewise true for the first few photographs. In “Do Not Give Way to Evil” it was the first one – the abandoned Bronx Borough Courthouse – that did it for me. When contemplating it, I instinctively knew that I would like Lisa Kahane’s other pictures – and I did. All of them. For they not only showed me the South Bronx, they told me about life.

Moreover, I loved her helpful introductory text. For its humaneness, its unpretentiousness, and its insights. Here are some excerpts:

“Change is a constant in New York City and it’s usually considered progress. In the Bronx, it was extraordinarily brutal. Portrayed either as a garden spot or a wretched failure of civic life, the ruin of the Bronx, part natural progression of the American Dream, part intentional destruction, was a long time in the making. Fewer things than one imagines are coincidences. What is made to seem the inevitable process of history is often the interplay of money and power.

Withdrawal of federal funds, diminishing city services, and dependence on welfare turned the American Dream into an American Nightmare. Anger and frustration turned to cruelty, and boredom to loss of hope. Drugs were easy to get. Widespread fires, unknown since the early nineteenth century, made a comeback. Counterproductive government response made arson profitable for landlord and tenant. In the 70’s the borough averaged 12,000 arson fires a year, over thirty a day.

There are books now that explain it all and yet explain nothing. The devil’s best game, the poet Charles Baudelaire wrote, is to convince us that he doesn’t exist. Even though it’s always the present tense in a photograph, the spirit of the time can only be represented, not recalled or recreated. The best thing about these pictures of devastation is that they can’t be taken in the Bronx anymore.”

Lisa Kahane's "Do Not Give Way to Evil” was published in 2008 by PowerHouse Books, Miss Rosen Editions, Brooklyn, New York.

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