The tragic art of urban decay

Housed in a room with cream-colored walls, the Corcoran’s collection of photographs titled “Joseph Mills: Inner City” is a startling remembrance of an era not too distant. An era of events that have scarred many and a social climate that has become even more severe over the years.

Joseph Mills seems to struggle with the concept of a city within a city: a sullied aggregate of the polis-states making up the District of Columbia. The photographer, who once said he could identify with his subjects who live in the shadows, never hides behind the camera. Rather, Mills finds himself hiding within the worn skins of the people he photographs. Their – and subsequently his – fears and pains are vicariously captured on film. This is a city whose own skin has its bruises and blemishes. Urban decay, through Mills’ lens, are pockmarks on the appendages of the capital.

In many respects, “Inner City” is Mills’ rendition of writer Tom Wolfe’s delineation of Chinatown – a reflection on the situational alterations of a bustling cityscape. Each photograph of the exhibition was taken in the 1980s, during a period of urban transition. With these pictures, the artist conveys the mood of the town through the eyes of its inhabitants.

“In my photographs, there’s not a lot of social setting or group shots,” Mills has explained. “Mostly you see individuals, and it’s because I see their condition and I try to see myself in them. I’m trying to work out something inside of me.”

Mills, who suffered from mental illness during the period he took the photographs, put himself into the work head-on, so viewers feel as connected with his subjects as possible.

Shuffled like a deck of yellowed, weathered cards, the pieces range from high to low art. Some are brutally affecting, like that of a man lying in the street, unconscious, his hands covering his face. Others, however, have a mannered gloss, which can inhibit the impact of the photograph. While several pieces burn with humanity, a few feel staged and even insincere, as if the artist intervened between his vision and reality.

Among the works is a black-and- white photo of a woman in a black dress standing ramrod straight in a pose, reminiscent of a Barbie doll by a shop window. Missing one of her heels, her neatly pedicured foot remains arched, perhaps yearning for the slender stiletto that once capped her stocking.

A picture of a man urinating outside a store is a fine example of Mills’ ability to find elegance in even the rawest human actions. The man’s action, while crude, is geometrically revealed by two thin rivers running parallel to the camera.

Other photographs are disturbing. Take, for example, a series depicting a shirtless vagabond, probably a war veteran, missing two-thirds of his arm and roaming the street. Or the images of diseased hands and feet with open sores and scars like roadmaps to painful memories of the past. Though a tad calculated, the shots are no less affecting and would be at home adorning the cover of National Geographic or Time magazines.

An untitled shot of three businessmen, taken below their necks, suggests the notion of countless empty suits on their way to the cold, faceless corporate setup. Even the gait of the trio is the same, their footing mirrored like Arthur Murray footprints on a dance floor.

The unqualified beauty of Mills’ work is in the meticulous attention to detail during the development process. Printed on expired photo paper, the pictures have an antiquated bronze hue, which is dramatized with layers of furniture varnish. The effect is surreal, albeit clinically documented.

Through his photographs, we are urged not to turn away from the bleakness around each corner and rather make ourselves aware of the direction in which society is headed. Mostly, though, Mills demonstrates he has a great deal of faith in his audience. Instead of forcing a story upon us, he presents the characters and the scenery, leaving the big decisions up to us.

We can’t know how these people found themselves in their situations, but we can sympathize and occasionally identify with their struggle. And, with the problems identified, the possibility of remedy seems all the more attainable.

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.