Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Hell on 23rd Street: "The Ninth Floor" by Jessica Dimmock
(This review ran in the New York Post in November 2007)
By Dylan Foley
The Ninth Floor by Jessica Dimmock (Contrasto)
We meet Rachel and Dionn in a series of seven photographs. Rachel and Dionn are two junkies desperately trying to stay off heroin. Dionn tries to embrace the pregnant, dreadlocked Rachel as she drinks a can of malt liquor in her panties and bra. She starts screaming at Dionn. She pounds his face with her fists. Dionn turns away, blood dripping down his chin.
Welcome to the hell of “The Ninth Floor,” Jessica Dimmock’s riveting, voyeuristic tour of a shooting gallery and flophouse in a ninth-floor apartment on West 23rd Street, across from the Flatiron Building. Dimmock spent eight months starting in the fall of 2004 photographing the the apartment with its more than two dozen junkies, drug dealers, prostitutes and lost souls. In the vivid color photos, these inmates of Hades shoot up, have sex, fight and nod off.
The apartment’s many rooms were packed with broken furniture and dirty clothes. The kitchen was so filled with garbage, it was unusable. When the power was off, the occupants shot up by candlelight.
Dimmock was picked up off the street by a drug dealer who wanted to be photographed and brought her to the apartment. The leaseholder was Joe Smith, a 68-year-old fixture on the 1970s art scene. Smith allowed a
hustler named Joey to live with him, and Joey brought in the hordes of drug users and hookers. Smith lived on his couch, catatonic as his apartmentwas stripped of antiques. The junkies and hustlers gave him heroin and cigarettes, in lieu of rent, until Smith was finally taken away in an ambulance. A month later, the real estate management company sent in goons to forcibly evict the drug users and dealers.
Dimmock’s intimate color images of the self-destruction of her subjects brings to mind Nan Goldin’s 1980s series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency.” Her photgraphy also draws favorable comparisons to Eugene Richards’ “Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue,” for the frenetic nature of drug abuse framed by odd camera angles and portraits.
True New Yorkers will be most truly horrified at the real estate issues: Smith was paying $1200 a month for a rent-stabilized, 2000 square-foot pad off Fifth Avenue.
Some of Dimmock’s photos of the trash-filled drug den appeared in New York Magazine in 2005. After her subjects were evicted, Dimmock followed and photographed two couples for more than two years—Mike and Jesse,
Rachel and Dionn. As both couples’ situations deteriorate, they resort to more stealing and prostitution.
Jesse’s decline is stark and quick. A high-cheekboned beauty, Jesse ages 20 years in three years of photos. After years of hard drugs, abusive boyfirends and johns, her cheeks become sunken, her eyes glazed, her arms scabbed with abcesses. Jesse goes to prison, gets out and moves in with her mother in upstate New York. She tries to detox but can’t escape the crack and heroin of the streets. The most horrifying shot of Jesse is a photo from her mother’s house, showing an image of Jesse as a pretty teen, hair in braids, eyes full of hope. That Jesse killed herself a long time ago.
Dimmock crosses the line from photographer to friend. She forces Jesse to dump heroin down the toilet. She takes Jesse to a New York hospital emergency room on the verge of death, saving her life. Then Dimmock photographs Jesse as she shoots heroin in the hospital.
The story of Rachel and Dionn has a different twist. Rachel was a fixture for years as a University Place, off Union Square, panhandling with her babyface and insolent expression, tattoos of stars shooting up her neck and angel wings bursting out of her cleavage on warm days.
Dionn and Rachel go on methadone. He gets her pregnant. They still have violent fights, but as the pregnancy progresses, serenity sets in. Baby Mathilda is born, possibly drug addicted, and spends the first
month in the hospital receiving opium treatments, the situation wracking her parents with guilt and despair. With their tiny baby, they search for stability and try to stay off junk.
Dimmock’s photographs form a tight narrative: The loose, dangerous thrill of hard drugs, the violence of addiction, the craving, the filth of unkempt apartments and feral survival on the street.
Dimmock, a Brooklyn schoolteacher turned photojournalist, found herself locked into her friends’ slow death. “Was my nonjudgmental acceptance a form of enabling? No,” she writes in her intense
afterward. “Could I have made them stop by challenging them about their self destruction? No.”
At the end, Dimmock had to end the project to save her own sanity. “When your friend is killing yourself and trusts you for being so accepting,” writes Dimmock, “the whole arrangement becomes untenable.”
Meanwhile, like a ghost, Rachel was recently sighted on a warm day in October, pushing her baby girl in a stroller near Union Square, her blonde dreads flying.