They’re everywhere. On the street on the way to work, on the steps outside the office block I stumble in on. They lurk in the car park after dark for shelter – where the local council have installed needle drop-off boxes for “sharps”. Yet they’re glamorised too. A form of self-harm, chorus the media, while shooting every punch-up, every blood droplet spilt by Amy Winehouse or Pete Doherty.
The age of the bohemian junkie, written about by Burroughs, filmed by Warhol and personal muse to Lou Reed, has surely passed; heroin has given way to the more socially acceptable use of cocaine. But the media can’t decide whether to turn its back on them or record every puncture wound while the tracks are still fresh.
I don’t know what to do either. With this book, that is. Should I drop it off at my local drop-in centre, where it could equally serve either as a health warning or pawn shop token to buy someone their next fix? Because, yes: the images taken by Dimmock over three years on the ninth floor of a Manhattan housing block are unexpectedly compelling photo stories of the lives of everyday addicts. Yet they’re also a grotesque, disturbing, invariably depressing and sometimes scary document of the grip that this drug exerts over its ill-fated users.
Grainy, gloomy and asphyxiating, Dimmock achieves something extraordinary in portraying her subjects – grimacing, punching, sleeping, wasted, wasting away – as sadly ordinary; their lives punctuated by repetitive cycles of eating, sex, survival and rest. Moments of reprieve do emerge both between the subjects and between the addicts and the photographer; but nothing close to the redemptively beautiful or tragically iconic single shot ever shines through as it does in, say, Nan Goldin’s autobiographical work.
If there’s a failure in Dimmock’s exposé, it’s that she never exposes quite enough. Winner of the International Award for Concerned Photography, she, too, is complicit in the sorry state of affairs. From her initial introduction (courtesy of a stranger called Jim Diamond, a cocaine dealer who approaches her on the street and offers his world up to her lens), she constantly covers her tracks and conceals a good deal of what she becomes party to.
Her decision to turn a spontaneous foray into lower Manhattan’s underground economy into a large-scale study shares all the ethical dilemmas of the urban anthropologist, the photo-documentarist’s shoot and run – of the fragile dependencies swiftly made and broken and confidentiality pact tacitly established. Having peered through the crack of the door, the viewer too can’t help but want to see more.
Dimmock lends you a sense of this uneasy immediacy through her portrayal of two couples who come alive on the page, no longer mere shadows on the walls. But her familiarity also debars her from revealing the more sensitive elements of life on the ninth floor. No one knows what goes on behind closed doors, they say, and it’s only within the appendix that you come to learn of the “septic hush” draping the fetid air. Here Natasha slept in a closet, a dead cat lay unnoticed in the bathroom for two weeks, people openly had sex in the living room, Rachel’s eye infection resulted in brain surgery and old Joe, a former antiques dealer and owner of the flat turned squat, lay in permanent repose on a soiled sofa, too old to inject, until he was finally stretchered him out. Horrible, you shudder; yet you can’t help but feel she missed a trick or two in not turning her lens to any of this truly raw material to fully reveal the very lack of glamour that lies behind the junkie’s life.
Does the photographer become implicated in the aestheticisation of heroin abuse by choosing to omit the truly gory details of subsistence in this decrepit, shambolic reality? Or has Dimmock chosen to save us from the bleaker aspects to allay criticisms of sensationalising her subject matter?
Reading the postscript finally reveals something about Dimmock which explains her fascination and need to document this twilight world: her parents were addicts once upon a time, too. If her study serves a function, it’s sadly this: to heed the wasted years that come out of an apparent nowhere and lead back to precisely that, leaving behind a photo album for those unable
to make it for themselves.