TEXT BY MIMI ZEIGER / PHOTOGRAPHY BY CHAD RESS
As the country confronts economic stalemate, Chad Ress’s photographs prompt comparisons with imperfect efforts to rebuild in the past.
On February 17, 2009, less than a month after his inauguration, President Barack Obama signed into law the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009. A stimulus bill meant to jump-start the nation’s flatlined economy, the Recovery Act, as it was popularly known, promised nearly $800 million to state and local governments for the funding of “shovel-ready” projects.
The following year, the Ojai, California–based photographer Chad Ress stood on a dry lake bed in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada and watched a tractor maneuver boulders into totemic piles in New Hogan Lake in Valley Springs, California. He was there to document a project funded by ARRA. The resulting photograph is almost boring. The frame captures signs of California’s epic drought; what was once covered in water is now dust. The sky is nearly white. Yet that line of rocks was evidence of money at work.
The book America Recovered (Actar Publishers, 2019) pairs Ress’s photographs with snippets of text that he pulled from recovery.gov, the government-sponsored and now-defunct website that listed each of the public works funded by ARRA. Although the site was taken down in 2016, a mothballed version can be found in the Library of Congress archive. The recovery.gov site didn’t show photos or drawings, just obtuse project descriptions of what might get done and a dollar amount. The unheroic list was meant to demonstrate transparency, but it had all the charm of bureaucratic efficiency married to a partisan political climate (the Republican-controlled Senate at the time aimed to minimize many achievements of the Obama administration).
The website struck Ress as an important counterpoint to the archive of images amassed during the Great Depression by Roy Stryker, who launched the documentary photography division of the Farm Security Administration under New Deal legislation. Photographers including Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, and Dorothea Lange were assigned to photograph America under economic hardship. Their cameras captured how people were living, government buildings, factories, and places of worship. Parallel documentation undertaken by the Works Progress Administration celebrated the monumentality of new public works—such as the majestic Hoover Dam photographed by Ansel Adams.
“I wanted to explore those disconnects between what I could read on recovery.gov and what I could see,” Ress says. “I was hoping that the language would align with what I could photograph, but that only happened once: New Hogan Lake, Valley Springs.”
Ress shot the South San Diego Bay Coastal Wetland Restoration, a project that received $2.9 million in ARRA funds. His photograph of the 230 acres of salt ponds is enigmatic. It’s unclear if this habitat has indeed been restored. A broken concrete barrier fills the foreground and a signpost is missing its didactic text. “[The Recovery Act] had no grand narrative in terms of public idealism or public unity as there was with the New Deal,” Ress says. “What I found was one giant maintenance project—things not interesting enough to be photographed.”
Ress’s images were first published in Harper’s Magazine to accompany a 2012 essay by Ian Volner. Its title, “The Invisible Stimulus,” resonates with two interlocked questions that lie at the heart of the work—one straightforward and one more conceptual. What does $800 billion in stimulus money look like? How do you picture policy?
A decade after ARRA, the U.S. economy once again requires stimulus. The COVID-19 pandemic and subsequent economic plunge have exposed the precarity of public health and infrastructure nationwide.
“The act of citizenship is lost if not visible,” notes the architectural writer and educator Jordan H. Carver, who edited and contributed an essay to America Recovered. “Today, accountability is being stripped back. Not only are actions of the state not being seen, [but also] they’re being actively hidden. The institutions that are surviving are police and security structures of the state. That’s affecting people—poorer, browner, blacker people.”
Although deadpan in composition, Ress’s photographs reveal a historical moment that showed the actions of the state to be piecemeal and insufficiently monumental—even when aggregated—and suggest critique worthy of our current moment. How will state and national policies during this downturn be represented?
In mid-March, just a couple days after Los Angeles County issued stay-at-home orders and a week before California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide mandate, the Los Angeles-based photographer Pascal Shirley and the helicopter pilot Alex Freidin made a series of flights over Los Angeles. Shirley’s photographs document empty runways at LAX, quiet playgrounds, no morning traffic, and eerily deserted parking lots, hiking trails, and beaches.
“When I was surveying Los Angeles from the sky, the biggest feeling I had was as if time had stopped—someone had pressed a pause button,” Shirley says. “After the initial shock, I became numb to the human absence, which allowed me to really look at the architecture of the landscape and map out places of leisure and corridors of mobility.”
In picturing such stillness, however, the aerials also seem to freeze in place a moment in a series of fluid and evolving pandemic policies rolled out week after week all spring and summer. One has to wonder if the public imagination will better remember the bird’s-eye view of vacant freeways or the news footage of looting and fires, which overwhelmed coverage of more peaceful protests against police violence sparked by the killing of George Floyd and other Black citizens.
“Society, civic infrastructure, social space, and public space require a lot of work,” says Carver, whose research tackles issues of politics, race, and space. “Each demands active participation, which is a kind of care: not just money to care for a park, but civic engagement to form a feedback loop between citizens and the state.”
While we can point to successes of the New Deal building programs—each dam, bridge, or campground symbolizes collective nationhood—the ARRA projects documented in Ress’s photographs tell us that achievement is ambiguous. At a time when fracture seems to outweigh unity, can we count on government stimulus to leave behind anything worth admiring?
Enacted in late March 2020, the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act) sets aside $1.5 billion for economic development assistance programs that, in the words of the act, “prevent, prepare for, and respond to coronavirus.” The vagaries of the document’s language include grants to state and local government entities for tourism, the construction of infrastructure, and “resilience strategies.”
What kinds of projects qualify, however, is open to interpretation. Should, for example, a park count as public health infrastructure, since we need more urban open space to safely social distance? What about gymnasiums or recreation centers that can double as emergency hospitals? These approaches require strategic planning that goes beyond any “shovel-ready” project that might be already on the boards.
Liz Crosson, the director of infrastructure for the Los Angeles Mayor’s Office of City Services, suggests that robust water infrastructure—from capturing stormwater to cleaning up groundwater—is key to a pandemic response. Instrumental for cleaning and handwashing, access to safe, clean water is uneven across Los Angeles County and nationwide. “Infrastructure needs existed pre-COVID-19 but have been revealed as urgent due to the pandemic,” she says. “Public health investment means affordable and reliable water for all. Water is a basic human right. We need investment in infrastructure that is resilient with multibenefit outcomes.”
Such a direction aligns with the Moving Forward Framework developed by House Democrats in January, which entwines climate action with improvements for aging infrastructure. The document calls for more than $85 billion in combined water infrastructure, covering the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ flood protection projects, clean water and wastewater infrastructure, and clean drinking water for communities facing contamination. The House of Representatives passed the $1.5 trillion H.R. 2: Moving Forward Act in early July, and at time of publication it was awaiting action in the Senate.
As 2020 comes to a close, economic recovery fueled by infrastructural investment remains frustratingly elusive. Images of socially distant voter lines and ad hoc outdoor dining pavilions may be the documents of this period in U.S. history. But perhaps the political scientist Bonnie Honig’s closing lines from her foreword to America Recovered offer a hopeful outlook.
She writes, “[W]e may see in Ress’s images the future glory of action in concert’s not-yet: an America-to-come in which democratic citizens of all races, classes, sexualities, and genders work together for peace, equality, and justice, in large and small scale collaborations, while also enjoying together some leisure—perhaps even idling in the beautiful shade of their democracy’s public things.”
Mimi Zeiger is a Los Angeles–based critic and curator.