Work from Photo NOLA, Part 1

- - From The Field

It’s Wednesday morning. I’m sitting at my kitchen table, where I like to write. Outside the window, the snow has just begun to fall. White flakes drop from the sky like so many perfect coins, tossed into Trevi Fountain.

In the black wood stove, piñon logs gurgle as their latent energy is converted into heat. The flames crackle too; the only sounds I hear in this otherwise silent, winter world.

It’s the Holiday Season, and we’re all getting ready to shut things down for a little while. To spend time with our families, perhaps take a vacation. Do our best to regenerate for 2015.

Just this morning, I was thinking about that word. Holiday. Clearly, it stems from the two words Holy and Day. Holy? That’s a word that’s been mostly bled of meaning, outside of true believers.

How might we re-interpret it, bring it down to Earth, give it a connotation that seems more relevant in our confusing, futuristic, and yet anachronistic times? (2014 being the year in which territorial land grabs became popular again. Just like the old days.)

As I said last week, I live in a magical place. This is known. The big mountain to the East is revered as sacred by the local Native American Tribe. They see the land as Holy.

Others, hippies mostly, call that same mountain a vortex, one of the few places in the world where energy carries mystical properties. Or maybe you’ve heard of the Taos Hum, which is not an actual topic of discussion here in town.

Regardless, there is enough evidence, personal and historical, for me to call this place special. When you live here, you realize that not all things can be explained. Science is great, but some knowledge comes from elsewhere. Just like the Big Bang is much like any other creation myth.

Once you’re comfortable assigning magical properties to one place, it’s not so hard to do it to another.

But where?

I’m willing to put the great city of New Orleans on that list too.

During my recent visit, I found there were some odd similarities between this little mountain town in the High Desert, and that classy city in the Louisiana swamp. (Odd, but true.)

I’d guess it’s because each locale was not founded by Puritan America. New Mexico was a Spanish Colony before anyone had ever seen Plymouth Rock. The French built New Orleans, and the resulting gorgeous architecture speaks to their legacy.

Here, the Catholic tradition believed in Saints. Mysticism was real. Penitentes whipped themselves in small mud huts. Those aforementioned Native Americans, even today, perform ceremonies that amalgamate animism with Catholicism. Spooky, beautiful stuff.

I know nothing of Voodoo, myself, but New Orleans clearly has a history of religious mashup too. Slaves from Africa mixed with Acadians. Local Native American tribes were thrown into the mix, resulting in parades filled with African-American “Indians.”

Americans came late to this particular party.

That’s a long introduction, I’m well aware. But this is to be my last piece for 2014, so I thought I’d go down swinging. Plus, the luxurious snowflakes have put me in a thoughtful mood.

My trip to New Orleans a couple of weeks ago re-enforced these ideas. There is something special in the air there, and it’s clear I’m not the only one that thinks so. It’s a tourist mecca for good reason. You don’t just go for the food and the drink and the chance to see flashed boobs. (I saw none.)

You go because in such places, we can be reminded that it’s a good thing, that the inexplicable exists. Who wants to live in a world where all the answers are at our fingertips?

Not me.

Google is great for offering up the illusion of omniscience. But it just that, I assure you. Illusory.

I’m betting you’d like some evidence.
How’s this?

When the time came to leave, my wife and I hopped into a taxi cab. Immediately, it was clear that our loquacious driver was that type of local. Witty, charismatic, and dripping with down-home wisdom.

When discussing the propensity of professional football players to find themselves in trouble, he pointed out that we all have the capacity for violence. And murder. Those guys are just people, like the rest of us. We all have our stresses, which lead to bad decisions.

“Pressure bursts pipes,” he said. How true.

As he continued, one story hilariously leading to the next, I happened to look down at his name. Lucien.

Lucien? I rubbed my temples. That was the name of the cab driver I had when I last left town, back in 2012. He even made it into the story I wrote, published on this very blog.

Could it be? What were the odds?

I mentioned my theory about why people loved New Orleans so much. Because the locals, as much as they cherish their culture, are happy to share it with everyone. They clearly relish the fact that people revel in the spirit of the place, and take a smidge of it home with them. (As opposed to places like Taos, where each new visitor wants to shut the door behind them. And the descendants of Conquistadors give tourists a good mad-dog look whenever they can.)

Responding to that theory, Lucien said, “It don’t cost anything extra to be nice.” Which was the exact same thing he said two years ago, on which I quoted him.

That sealed the deal. The heavens had intervened. Chance reared its head, and then went back to sleep, allowing some Holy Spirit to give my wife and me the perfect escort to our plane.

Call me crazy. Call me a hippie. I don’t care. Just don’t call it a coincidence.

As artists, it’s important that we be willing to suspend our disbelief, from time to time. After all, our calling is alchemy, not science. Creation is messy, and can not be written up into an algorithm.

The keynote lecturer at photoNOLA was the great Emmet Gowin. This was more or less the crux of his lecture, which had everyone transfixed. I took notes on my Iphone, but think, this many words into the article, that I’ll save that conversation for the next piece.

I saw so many good projects at the portfolio review that I will be writing three stories, so there’s plenty of time to meander into the bigger ideas that motivate us. (The good stuff, as far as inspiration goes.)

Rest assured, the New Orleans Photo Alliance, the non-profit that runs Photo NOLA, does a bang up job. They run a terrific festival, and showed me a hell of a good time. I’m thrilled to have seen so much to share with you, and will commence with that now.

Before I stop musing, though, I’d like to wish you a magical Holiday season. May you get all the gifts you desire, and let’s hope some of them don’t cost anything at all.

On to the photographers.

As with the articles about the Medium Festival, I’m not putting these fine artists in any order. We’ll look at some this week, and the re-start the process in 2015.

Larry Colby is a photographer from Boynton Beach, Florida. This is his second career, as he was originally a financial planner. But he’s all in on photography, these days, and his work was the first I saw.

Larry photographs in a local soup kitchen, which feeds a collection of Central and South American immigrant communities. He’s been focusing primarily on the children. Their portraits, in particular. I encouraged him to step back a bit, give us the cinematic equivalent of establishment shots. But also to dig deeper into the issues of poverty and immigration on a grander scale.

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Jan Arrigo is a Southern photographer who did stints in the publishing world, including a stretch at Oxford University Press. Jan has spent 20 years photographing animals in zoos, at night, with the intention of publishing a book. It all began with the kangaroo picture, which she took after getting boxed by one of the creatures in Australia.

We discussed whether she ought to try to market the project as a children’s book, which was her original intent, or try to make something for the mass market. Alternatively, she’s also considering doing a small-run photo book for the photo community.

Clearly, she’ll have to decide where the project will fit best, and what’s most important to her. Then it will be easier to accomplish her goal. But all good books need good photos, and I thought these were pretty cool. Even better, her leave-behind was a box of animal crackers covered in small versions of her photos. Very clever.

A black bird perched on a tree outside a window appears as if from a dream in this black and white photo portrait taken in Orlando, Florida.

A Florida raptor stares intensely ahead in this black and white photo portrait by Jan Arrigo.

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Black and white photo portrait of a flying monkey by Jan Arrigo.

A snake stares into the camera's lens in this Jan Arrigo black and white photo.

Two bear cubs show their claws in this fight captured by Jan Arrigo in a black and white photograph.

A Louisiana brown bear stares into the camera in this black and white photo portrait taken at the Audubon zoo in New Orleans.

A male lion pants under a moonlit night in this landscape photo portrait.

As if posing this Western Lowland gorilla gazes into the camera in this black and white photo by Jan Arrigo.

Two black birds react to a photographer in the Florida Everglades in this black and white photo.

This black and white photo portrait of a large white rhino shows him eating an herbivorous diet.

Black and white photo portrait of a boxing kangaroo by Jan Arrigo.

Brad Hamilton was visiting from New York. He’s been working on a project that attempts to add a digital, 21st Century twist to classic street photography. Not unlike Barry Frydlender, he mashes up multiple images, taken over time, into one frame.

I was intrigued by the fact that Brad often chooses neutral backgrounds, out in the real world. He sets himself in front of construction sites, places where a large swath has been painted white. Then he shoots tens of thousands of pictures, so he said.

The photographs enable him to create narrative or symbolic connections. He often titles them by the street corner that he adopts as his temporary home.

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Ashley McDowell is a young photographer from the Boston area. She studied photography at Syracuse, where she worked with Doug DuBois.

Ashley’s work is as personal as it gets. She’s been working on a long-term project that focuses on her sister’s heroin addiction, and the havoc it’s wreaked on her family’s collective life. Some images were fraught, and others were too subtle for the subject matter, I felt. The lists, held up in several photos, represent the items her sister stole from her family.

The best work is so personal that it allows an artist to tap right into the collective unconscious. The more honest we are, the more likely we are to tell a story with which many others can relate. I thought Ashley’s strongest images were well on their way to creating the type of empathy with tragedy, and addiction, that will captivate an audience.

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Bob Bright is a long-time commercial photographer based in Los Angeles. And he’s a life-long resident as well. One of those people who remembers when the megalopolis felt like a small town. When the dreams of the world were focused on Hollywood. Fame. Glamour. A better life.

Bob’s photographs parallel that by looking at the aging architecture and infrastructure of LA. He’s got a great medium format digital camera, and the high-resolution, modernist renderings match well with the faded, modernist glory. As we sifted through the project, finding the strongest through-line, I felt the metaphorical qualities begin to shine through.

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Finally, we’ll end with Leigh Webber. As I wrote last week, I mostly treat these meetings as critiques, these days. I’ll tell people immediately if I can publish their work here, or pitch it to the Lens Blog. No secrets about that, so I don’t leave tension hanging in the air.

It allows me to ask questions about why someone has come to the table. Where they are in their career. What type of feedback I can offer to be as helpful as possible.

For Leigh, it was difficult. She lives in Charleston, South Carolina, and has been shooting commercially, and doing weddings, for years. That’s her comfort zone.

She came to Photo NOLA, though, to introduce her work to a fine art audience. She knew nothing about it, and was taking a chance. Putting herself out there.

What she showed me was understandably jumbled. There were five different groupings of two or three pictures. Nothing coherent, but all well made. And everything focused on her son, as he grew up.

I told Leigh if she wanted to go through her archive, when she got home, and find a consistent voice, I’d be happy to take another look and see if I could publish it. Many photographers would have seen that as a rejection, not a challenge.

Leigh, true to her desire to grow, and learn new things, took me up on the offer. She sent the edit I’m showing now, which has something of the wild spirit of youth, mixed up with a mother’s love. I dig the photos, and hope you do too.

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As always, the lesson is not to settle with what you know. Not to get lazy with your skills. I hold myself to the same standards, and am working on some new ideas for next year. Things I currently have no idea how to accomplish.

That’s where we find the good stuff. All the best, and see you next year.

Jonathan Blaustein

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