Martha RoslerAmerican (Brooklyn, New York, 1943)
The Bowery in two inadequate descriptive systems
Rosler juxtaposes a sequence of black-and-white photographs taken in the Bowery, a Manhattan skid-row neighborhood, with words and phrases used to describe alcoholics, drunkenness, and alcoholism. She deliberately avoids depicting any of the human victims her work alludes to, either by photographing them or offering first-person testimony.
Instead, her work operates in a cool, even ironic manner. Her straightforward pictures suggest the hopelessness of a neighborhood stuck in an economic dead end, while the accompanying catalogue of alcoholism-related language is elaborate, excessive, and even darkly humorous at times.
In the end, the overriding mood is anything but upbeat. Rosler's careful pairing of word and image implies that something here is desperately wrong, but she leaves viewers to decide for themselves exactly what the meaning conveyed by these two "inadequate descriptive systems" might be.