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photo-eye Book Reviews: One Block

One Block, Photographs by Dave Anderson.
Published by Aperture, 2010.
One Block
Reviewed by Ellen Rennard
Dave Anderson One Block
Photographs by Dave Anderson. Text by Chris Rose.
Aperture, 2010. Hardbound. 144 pp., 100 color illustrations, 8-3/4x9".

One Block is Dave Anderson's homage to a block in New Orleans located in the Lower Ninth Ward, an area where the floodwaters of Katrina dealt an especially hard blow. In documenting the rebuilding that went on there between 2006 and 2010, Anderson includes numerous portraits of the residents of this block, some at work -- painting, leveling, measuring, planting, sanding, and so forth -- others caught in the still moments between. Some of the portraits are more formal, others less so. Although the captions speak to the various concerns of these people, the photographic narrative centers around the evolution of homes; we see the before and after pictures, from sheets of plastic to fresh coats of paint, from dumpsters filled with rubble to new windows, walls, and roofs, all observed over the years Anderson returned to document the process of recovery. My favorite image shows the stripped interior of a house, shafts of light falling through a window on bare beams. In this photograph Anderson's skillful composition and use of light emphasize what is not there, and it is this absence above all that makes us feel the losses of Katrina, even as the photographs of renovation convey hope.

One Block, by Dave Anderson. Published by Aperture, 2010.
 Anderson also includes the words of the people themselves, as well as descriptions that hint at the failures of FEMA, struggles with building codes, and the myriad problems encountered in the long recovery from Katrina's devastation. These captions are quite helpful in understanding the back-stories that are only hinted at in some of the photographs. For example, a black lab appears in several images, but then we also read that this dog died of cancer, the cause of which the dog's owner attributed to the FEMA trailer they lived in for two years after the hurricane hit. (A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention proved that FEMA trailers contained unsafe levels of toxic formaldehyde that caused numerous health problems.) In addition, Anderson turns his eye toward salient details like empty paint buckets, a blooming rose, a waterlogged photo album, a light fixture covered by a protective layer of plastic, chickens running in the grass, a stripped wall, and a boy standing under a red, white and blue basketball hoop. In many of these photographs, local color is literal: an orange wrench, a red rose, a yellow house, a blue wall - bright spots that enliven the pages and the mood.

One Block, by Dave Anderson. Published by Aperture, 2010.
One Block, by Dave Anderson. Published by Aperture, 2010.
 Anderson's previous book, Rough Beauty, contains black and white photographs of people living in the town of Vidor, Texas, a place made infamous by its history of KKK involvement. As with Vidor, Anderson is an outsider to the Lower Ninth Ward, but whereas he seems to have been a stranger with a camera in the case of the latter, it is clear that he was welcomed back by many of the people he photographed for One Block and that he is, as he writes, "proud to now call many of them friends." While these relationships plainly allowed Anderson access over a period of years, the portraits are not particularly intimate. In the best of them, the people are looking away from the camera, either in inward contemplation or in communion with someone other than the photographer. In general, I didn't feel like I really got to know these folks through the photographs as much as through their own words in the captions. I did notice people of various ages and races, some of them chatting and working together. (Was that diversity part of the reason Anderson chose this particular block, I wondered?) But, most importantly, what unfolds is how these people rebuilt their neighborhood; Anderson's photographs tell that story well, and the book's elegant sequencing shapes the narrative flow very effectively. Thus One Block shows us a different kind of aftermath of Katrina: not just the rubble, but the reconstruction.—Ellen Rennard

Ellen Rennard is a writer, photographer, and teacher of writing and literature at Groton School in Groton, MA. She graduated from Princeton, where she wrote her thesis on images of Native Americans; she also holds an MA in English from Middlebury. Her articles and reviews have appeared in Fraction Magazine and Photovision; her photographs have appeared in numerous publications, including Black and White and Orion. Images from Rennard’s book project on The Downs at Albuquerque were nominated for a New York Photo Festival Book Award in 2009 and won first place in the 2010 Px3 People’s Choice Awards for Book Proposal and Documentary Photography.