Ruth Dusseault’s “The Innermost Room,” at the Robert C. Williams Paper Museum through June 8, condenses the makings of a conceptually immense exhibition into one small, emotionally and aesthetically engaging show. For now, the emotional and aesthetic engagement is enough, because the exhibition also has a practical goal.
Dusseault visited tornado-ravaged Joplin, Missouri, twice in the wake of last spring’s disaster, which destroyed 7,000 homes and killed 155 residents. The first visit, three weeks after the tornado, yielded her large-format photographs of devastation that dominate two walls of “The Innermost Room.” It also left her with a lasting interest in the enormous number of family photographs that were recovered and restored by Operation Photo Rescue.
Two more walls of the Paper Museum show are filled with digital prints of scans of unclaimed photographs from this spectacular example of Operation Photo Rescue’s ongoing mission — its volunteers copy, digitally restore and return to owners some of the innumerable photos that are left scattered in the wake of natural catastrophes. (“Scattered” is almost too weak a description for the scope of it: some of the pictures from Joplin were found 250 miles away.) An accompanying video provides further context for this haunting collection of images.
The photos on display have turned into visual metaphors for photographs as repositories of memory, and for the ravages that history imposes on it. As with other water- or wind-damaged prints (photos rescued after Hurricane Katrina are well-known examples from recent Atlanta exhibitions), partial destruction lends a poignant beauty to images that may originally have been of significance only to their owners.
Dusseault’s purpose in this part of “The Innermost Room” is openly didactic: she means for this accidental beauty to focus the viewer’s attention on the insufficiently known work of Operation Photo Rescue and its all-volunteer network of amateur and professional restoration artists.
This is the exhibition’s primary intention, but, as Dusseault explains in an accompanying statement, not its only one. Even though it visually dominates the exhibition, memory and the rescue of its physical remnants is only half of her larger theme. The other half is restoration as a force for the future, and the birth of utopian dreams out of total destruction.
This too is an enormous subject, and residents’ plans for a new (and, as Dusseault describes it, more sustainable) community could constitute a completely separate exhibition. As it is, what Dusseault has provided here is a valuable introduction to the work of Operation Photo Rescue and an outline of directions in which her previous interests in history and utopia might lead the Joplin project.