Work from Photo NOLA, Part 2

My daughter got a staph infection late last year. Right on her butt cheek. It was awful.

At first we thought it was a spider bite, but with two doctors in the family, we were quickly corrected. It rose majestically from her tush, like the Sangre de Cristo mountains jut out of the New Mexico high desert.

Not good.

I knew nothing of the malady, before it settled comfortably into our home. The treatment is gruesome, and entails painfully squeezing out the toxic, contagious puss, day after day. She was a good sport about it, my little girl. Before and after the treatment, twice a day, she acted as if nothing was wrong.

But during? O.M.F.G. She screamed louder than a coked-up bond trader trying to get out of a bad deal. “Help. Help. Please stop, Daddy. Stop. No, Daddy, no. Ayuda me. Ayuda me.” (That last bit was fueled by lots of Dora the Explorer, to keep her semi-occupied.)

It took weeks to make the whole thing better. Unfortunately, during the infection’s run, my wife Jessie and I were meant to get away for a couple of days in Albuquerque. It was the best we could manage, to celebrate our 10th Anniversary, which had come and gone at the end of May. (It was to be our first parenting break since before Jessie got pregnant.)

Little girl was just old enough to leave with my folks for a couple of days. We’d been looking forward to the trip, meager as it was, for month and months. And then, with the staph infection in full swing, we had to cancel.

No fair.

We dropped the kids off at my folks for just a few hours instead, and must have looked as down-hearted and miserable as Barack Obama on Election Day 2014. We were crestfallen. Disappointed. Borderline suicidal.

So my Mom suggested that we book Jessie a ticket to go along with me to New Orleans. At first it seemed impossible. Surely, the tickets would be too expensive. And they wouldn’t really let us get away for 5 days, when even 2 had seemed so impossible?

It couldn’t work, could it?

I’ll cut to the chase, and bring some brevity into an otherwise rambling narrative. It did work. The tickets were reasonable, and the plan came together tighter than a spendthrift’s wallet.

I swear, I never, ever would have imagined we could pull it off. But we did. Out of the depths of our sadness, deep in the pit of despair, came a genuinely amazing few days together in a magical city.

Leave it to preachy-yours-truly to make a lesson out of an article about the portfolios I viewed at the Photo NOLA festival last year. Isn’t that just like me?

But it’s a valuable lesson, from where I’m sitting. We really don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and sometimes, the nastiest problems lead to the best solutions. Even when things look bleak, they can turn around quickly.

It happened while I was at Photo NOLA too. A micro-version of the same type of scenario.

Jessie and I were waiting outside the International House hotel, along with a throng of other festival goers. There was a school bus due to take us to the New Orleans Museum of Art, where Emmet Gowin was about to lecture at the big NOLA Gala. The crowd grew and grew, as the bus was clearly late.

I was in the midst of a good conversation with Dewi Lewis, the English photo book publisher, so I didn’t mind the delay. Eventually, I was roused by the shuffling of feet, the groans of unhappiness, and the piercing yell of Jennifer Shaw, Photo NOLA’s Executive Director. (Whom we interviewed here in early 2013.)

Apparently, the bus was stuck in unprecedented traffic on I-10. It was so late that it was not coming back to get us. People were left to fend for themselves, as the traffic had snarled up the entire city center, in addition to the Interstate.

The lecture started imminently. There was no clear plan of attack. Take a cab? Why? The roads were impassible, we were told.

Miss the lecture? Unwise, as Mr. Gowin is famous for his inspirational talks, as I said in the last article. But Jessie and I were dressed up, and there were so many nice restaurants within a few blocks. I contemplated blowing the whole thing off, but it left a sour taste in my mouth, like a turned tangerine.

Eventually, we decided to make no grand decision, but simply walk with the herd. Follow the crowd, which was headed towards Canal Street, with Jennifer in the lead.

I’m not much of a follower, but in this case, it seemed the wisest course of action. We tromped and tromped. All the while, watching the cars not move at all.

The bus and the streetcar were both shot down as options by people who knew more than I did. So we just kept walking, each moment taking us closer to missing the main event. Jennifer was keeping a cool face, but I knew she was seething inside. How could she miss her own Gala?

After 15 minutes, we came to a break in the traffic, and the street crowd thinned. “This is as good a place as any,” Jennifer said. So I launched into hero mode, and stepped confidently into the street with my right arm raised.

Sure enough, three minutes later, I spied a mini-van cab, and hailed away. He was free, and headed our way. By then, our group numbered 12 people.

The cabbie said he could take 5, and no more. Miraculously, another min-van pulled up in front of the first, and 5 people piled in. Immediately.

That left us with 7. The cabbie agreed to stretch it to 6, but no more. So we filled up, and left Jennifer Shaw standing on the street, looking so sad it almost broke my heart. How she kept from crying, I really don’t know.

“We can’t leave her here,” my wife said. “It’s not possible. Of all the people, she needs to be there the most.”

“It’s true,” I said. “We can’t leave her. Can you please fit one more,” I asked the driver? “Otherwise, we’ll get out.”

“Sure,” he said. “But only this once.”

I offered to sit on the floor, sans seat belt, and the day was saved. We stayed off the highway, and were there in 10 minutes. (With just enough time to chug two glasses of cava, so we’d have a nice little buzz for Emmet’s lecture.)

I’ll spare you too much gushing about how that man fired up the crowd. He spoke to the deepest motivations of why we make art. And he insisted, time and again, that if you’re not willing to trust your instincts, and accept that there are always forces at work, far greater than you… you’re in the wrong line of work.

I listened intently, absorbing the wisdom, and finally had to type some quotes into my phone, as they were just too good not to share with you.

“Hold constant to the stars that seem to be organizing your life.”

“Do you have room inside yourself for what religious people call the Holy Spirit?”

“Speak out of your feelings.”

“Don’t put anything off.”

“The sun doesn’t care what we’ve done to the Earth.”

“You have to make all the mistakes yourself.”

I’ll end there, as Emmet did. I’ve already gone on long enough that some of you will have skipped down to the photographs. C’est la vie. And as they say in NOLA, L’aissez les bon temps rouler.

On to the photographers.

Susan Berger showed me some of my favorite work I saw. It’s a strange project, in that it seems like someone would have thought of it already. She photographed Martin Luther King Boulevard. In 40 cities around the United States.

Look closely, and you notice that in almost every case, the street was dedicated in an African-American neighborhood. But not always. She uses the street sign often, but not always. Sometimes, there’s a statue, or a hair salon named after him, or a low-income housing project.

Evocative stuff. I loved that she shot it medium format, black and white, and presented gelatin silver prints. All that work, it makes a difference.

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Francis Crisafio had another project that I loved. He teaches photography in an after school program in Pittsburgh, and has been doing it for years. His efforts are genuinely creative and collaborative.

He showed me several interlocking projects he does with the children. In one case, he shoots portraits of them, and makes prints. From there, the students make self-portrait drawings. Then, they hold them up to their face, and he shoots new portraits, with the drawings standing in for their faces.

I really loved those photographs, many shot in front of the classroom blackboard. There were other incarnations too, including some self-portrait collages the students make. All in all, a very impressive showing.

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Jen Ervin also showed me a collaborative project, though it was evident only in her words. The pictures didn’t really indicate the process. She shoots her children, at a family cabin in the woods, but she claims the entire family is responsible for the work.

Jen uses an old school Polaroid Land camera, and the small, unique black and white prints had some of that famed Southern Lyricism. They were very lovely. (And reminiscent of Sally Mann, who’s casts a long shadow down South.)

We discussed the fact that she’d been encouraged to make larger edition prints, by scanning and re-printing the originals. The copies were just that, far less effective than the one-of-a-kinds. Not sure you’ll agree, but I encouraged her to slap a big price tag on the Polaroids, and show and sell them exclusively. I saw no reason to water down the project by showing an inferior version. Do you agree?

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Ben Marcin is a photographer from Baltimore, and he first showed me some pictures that were straight out of “The Wire.” He did a typological project in which he shot individual B-more row houses, detached from anything but the context. I’d seen them before, as they were published on so many blogs around the Web.

His follow-up project, which I’m showing here, was also made amidst the poverty of his home city, and would likely make good old David Simon proud. Ben, who’s a confident sort, and loves to hike, trekked around the homeless camps that he said pop up almost anywhere there are some trees and grass.

He photographed these humble shacks and dwellings, which resonate with tragedy and resilience. He told me that he went back to each of these locations, and in every single case, the structure had been destroyed, razed, or burned to the ground.

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Rebecca Drolen showed me work in fortuitous circumstances. Apparently, one of the people I was meant to see was a no-show, so Rebecca won a quick lottery for the slot. I knew nothing of how it came to pass, but was thrilled, as I thought her work was some of the strongest I saw.

She studied at Indiana University, with Osamu James Nakagawa, whose excellent book we featured earlier in 2014. So I knew her training was solid.

Rebecca pulled out some black and white self-portraits that she told me were all about the relationship women have with hair. Ever the blunt reviewer, I told her that didn’t seem so significant to me, as her pictures were charmingly surreal. Yes, I thought of Magritte, but that’s a great reference for any artist.

They were just so weird, but also well-done. I loved them, and think you will to. We’ll feature the rest of the photographers next week, and then bring back the book reviews.

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Jonathan Blaustein

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