JESSICA ENTERED this world through a chance meeting with a cocaine dealer on the streets of New York, whilst newly enrolled on a one year course at the International Center of Photography. He saw her ‘fiddling with a digital camera’ and approached to talk. During the conversation, it was indicated he was amenable to being photographed in a ‘documentary style’ fashion. This, in itself, is a curious beginning - like Alice meeting the White Rabbit. Did the dealer [known as Jim Diamond] just fancy this pretty young artist? - or did he subliminally recognise her war paint? In a searingly honest essay in the book, Jessica Dimmock reveals herself to be the daughter of a reformed junkie, with haunting memories of accompanying her father to various drug dives whilst still a young child.
Anyone familiar with the dregs of the drug culture will also be familiar with the phoney pride and bombastic pretensions of those on the edge of the abyss. Addicts constantly swear they are about to kick the habit, reform themselves and rejoin the system. They revel in impossible fantasies about swanky apartments, holidays in the sun and flash cars. Perhaps Diamond just wanted an audience to reinforce his erratic self image, but whatever the reason, he introduced Dimmock into the underworld of Lower Manhattan and, eventually, an apartment on West 22nd Street that had been hijacked by junkies from the street. This was to be the location for a series of photographs that became The Ninth Floor.
Most reviewers have focussed on the leading players in the twilight circus that was 4 West 22nd Street, situated in Manhattan’s Flatiron district. Getting their vicarious thrills from this peek into the lives of those that are both shunned and secretly feared, and wallowing in the hypocritical liberals’ sense of schadenfreude when these riff-raff appear to get their comeuppance. But in fact, it can be read as a far more complex tale than it appears on the surface.
The story is actually a tragedy. Not that of the gang of voracious dropouts and street kids, but of the original owner of theapartment, an aged (68) sometime art dealer referred to as Joe Smith. A homosexual, Joe had been a player in the 1960s artworld and the apartment had been filled with antiques and art and valuable books. Once happily surrounded by younger gay men, Joe had made the error of subletting a room to street hustler called Joey. In no time at all his ninth floor apartment, in a classy block adjacent to the heritage Flatiron building, had been invaded by degenerates and stripped of anything saleable. Now a pathetic ghost, Joe - reduced sleeping on a couch in his own living room - had deteriorated into a hopeless addict, inveigling junk and scraps of food from the endless cycle of street trash that had taken up temporary residence and now dominated the formerly grand apartment.
After showing the regular inhabitants some of her prints, Jessica was slowly allowed access to all aspects of this community and, quite naturally, formed some close bonds with the more permanent residents. In one instance, this empathy and affection for Jesse - a girl from a caring family of former hippies - later resulted in the young photographer saving the girl’s life with a mercy dash to the hospital.
If Dimmock’s book is a series of clichés, it is because the junkie existence is a claustrophobic cycle of deceit, jail, self abuse, bravado and self pity - all clichés in themselves. The actual scenarios are also familiar in the photographic canon, from Nan Goldin to Larry Clark, but it must be remembered that Dimmock was then a student, still learning the language of image making herself. Probably unaware she was working within an established genre and clearly unsure of what was expected of her. The result is a purity of vision, unposed, uncontrived, often unfocussed, which neither judges nor excuses, and avoids - on the whole - the theatrical posturing of the subjects. Jessica confesses in her notes that when her concern for these new friends became a factor in the project she brought it to a halt, her essential ‘neutrality’ compromised. ‘It was hard to put the time in and to know when to stay or when to go’, she told Magnum in an interview, ‘sometimes I spent the night, or several days on end. That could be difficult and very claustrophobic, but it was an important component to my understanding of what was going on.’
The shambles that West 22nd Street had become ended in 2005, eight months after Jessica had entered the sickly, foetid rooms for the first time. Joe Smith was removed to hospital and, with that, absolute chaos and dissolution advanced unchecked. Within weeks the building management had a crew of heavies in to clear the space and the subjects of The Ninth Floor were back out on the uncaring streets and fighting for survival. Their only epitaph - a series of burningly honest, enquiring photographs by a talented photographer at the outset of her career. Jessica Dimmock, now 32, is a native New Yorker. That early promise has developed into a mature and exceptional talent. Her work has since appeared inThe New York Times Magazine, Aperture, Fortune, New York Magazine, Time and Newsweek.
In September 2007, FORMA Centro Internazionale di Fotografia, Milan, opened Jessica Dimmock’s exhibition The Ninth Floor to wide international acclaim: including the F Award for Concerned Photography and The Marty Forsher Fellowship for Humanistic Photography.