Richard Barnes, "Photographs of the Unabomber Cabin," Dec. 11, 1998-Jan. 30, 1999, at Henry Urbach Architecture, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Hannah Arendt's oft-cited phrase, "the banality of evil," reverberated through my thoughts as I looked over the six large photographs of Ted Kaczynski's famous cabin, pictures taken by Richard Barnes and on view in the inaugural exhibition of Henry Urbach Architecture in Chelsea. Originally published in the New York Times Magazine last fall, these exceptional images are both tawdry and chilling.
Through the image of Kaczynski's largest possession -- his house -- the photographs embody a madman's personality and his place in history. They do this through the device of synecdoche, much as Atget's vacated photographs of Paris monuments, doorways and shop windows are stand-ins for the social workings of French society. There are six photographs in all. Two color photographs, Unabomber Cabin, Sacramento, CA (1998) and Unabomber Cabin, Lincoln MT (1998), seem to offer society's view of the cabin and its place in the world of legal consequence. Four unprepossessing black and whites, Unabomber, Exhibits A through D, 1998, suggest Kaczynski's own enclosed, impenetrable world.
The possessions of celebrity killers like John Wayne Gacey and Jeffrey Dahmer gain fetishistic value as they accrue over time an irresistible aura, an extreme psychic texture. They manage to form in our collective minds an emotional contour of the outer limits of human pathological behavior and social deviancy.
Barnes, through the pellucid clarity and framing of his photographs, makes sure they will remain inscribed in our collective unconscious just as effectively as the now-indelible images of the Dallas Book Depository, the photograph of Jack Ruby lunging toward Lee Harvey Oswald, the images of the liberation of Buchenwald or images of genocidal practices from the Khmer Rouge or present-day "ethnic cleansing" in Central Africa or the Balkans.
As a photographer, Barnes treats Kaczynski's shed as a coroner would a body. First are full frontal and back views, then two side views, taken with a large format camera against a black background. The cabin was also photographed in situ, using color this time, in a high security FBI holding facility near Sacramento. The final picture shows a clearing in a sloping area in Montana woods where the cabin once stood, now surrounded by barbed wire and fencing with "Keep Out" signs.
The press release at the gallery mentions the "quasi-forensic" aspect of Barnes's photography. And indeed much of Barnes' effectiveness as a photographer stems from his cool, "nothing-but-the-facts, ma'am" expository type of image-making. Like August Sanders' work or the Hilda and Bernard Becher, the docu-look is meant to convey a dispassionate laying out of unvarnished "facts" of reality.
But Barnes' black and white photos confront us with contradictory readings. On the one hand, the simplicity of the cabin's mathematically pure proportions of squares and equilateral triangles seems fortified, self-sufficient and drenched with malevolence. An image of the Unabomber's asociality, the cabin assumes tragic overtones: every nail hole looks ominous, every covered window a sign of paranoia, every slat, every plank looks morbidly, anxiously defensive.
On the other hand, Kacynski's cabin has a too-perfect poise, and seems to leave the world of historic artifacts and join the world of artificiality. It becomes a caricature of a shed built for a cameo role in a prime-time horror movie, a star perfectly lit for a glamorous publicity still. Breathtakingly broken-in, it is an authentic Restoration Hardware recreation: a beauty ready for exurbia placement and designed for those quick week-end getaways.
The two color photographs offer us a sense of distance, which is something of a relief. The cabin is recontextualized and seen in a new light. In Unabomber Cabin, Sacramento CA, Barnes gives us a view of the cabin slightly turned at an angle between two pillars, dwarfed in a cavernous antiseptic warehouse, sequestered out of society's way.
In Unabomber Cabin, Lincoln MT, the negative space of the cabin's former presence, like a cancer-cell cut out from Nature's body, speaks volumes about the legacy of rugged American frontierism gone awry. Leeched out of such isolated areas as Montana, this individualism mislocates itself in rancid forms of self-expression -- white suprematism, nativism, racism and xenophobia. And just like that negative, fortified clearing in Barnes' photograph, we remember the evil that clings to incidents in our country's history precisely because we try the hardest to get them out of our minds.