The heart and soul of New Orleans changed last night. We were made a lesser place. Chef Leah Chase passed last night. She was 96 years old. She lived a life of service and good works. She believed that food could bring us together.
Although Ms. Leah was the grande dame of Creole cooking, she was so much more. She opened her restaurant, Dookie Chase, to both white and black people during the Jim Crow Era, when that wasn’t allowed. Illegal in some places.
Her restaurant was a base where the Freedom Riders could eat, rest and plan.
She put Barrack Obama is his place for adding hot sauce to her gumbo without tasting it first.
She collected African and folk art. She was steeped in jazz. I always looked for her blessing whenever somebody new came into my life. Going to see her and eat her food was for me — New Orleanians — like going to church. It was a spiritual experience.
She made everybody feel at home when they entered her restaurant. Yet, whenever I ate there I made sure I was dressed nicely, even in the summer’s heat when you normally find me in shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops.
I could go on and on.
I suspect that over the course of this week I will go on and on. It’s likely there will be unplanned second lines starting at Dookie Chase. There may even be God’s own jazz funeral. I’ve mostly retired from the street, but you know I’ll come out for all of whatever happens. If it doesn’t happen, that’s okay too. We’ll remember her in our own ways. We’ll tell Chef Leah stories. They will always be about goodness. About respect. About bringing people together. And, about the worth of working like a dog.
I, like most of New Orleans, will miss her. Her comforting clear eyed presence will be gone. She once said about rebuilding the city after Hurricane Katrina left us in tatters, “I suppose you should put on your pants and get to work.”
For those of you who want to know about the picture, I made it in 2002. On film. For a book project. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded the city. My house had water, but it didn’t reach to the level of my film archives. No matter. With no air conditioning, mold grew everywhere including on the plastic base of film. I was determined to save this take. The book project take. The film was funky and smelly. Even the best scans couldn’t quite save it. The highlights blew out for no known reason. The film color changed as well. But, it’s the best I have. It’ll do.
When I made this picture Ms. Leah had just turned 80. I asked her what was next. She said that she would just keep cooking. At least until 85. She keep cooking until she was 96.
I told you about this yesterday. I made this picture in the Lower 9th Ward. Houses stacked on other houses. Houses stacked on cars. Cars completely left to die after the water finally receded.
The Lower 9th Ward was a vibrant community on the downriver side of the Industrial Canal. It more-or-less sat by itself away from the rest of New Orleans. It started out as small truck farms feeding the restaurants of The French Quarter. Most of the folks who resided there lived in old family homes, many of which were built between 1900 and maybe 1930. They were smallish. They were insured for replacement costs when they were built. The houses passed from family member to family with out a deed or proof of mortgage.
Do you see where I’m going with this?
Without the proper paperwork, FEMA funds and LRA funds were unavailable to the people who just lost everything. They might be able to file an insurance claim and be paid at full value. But, a house built at 1,200 square feet that cost maybe $8,000 to build in 1920, cost about $200,000 to replace. The current family members didn’t have that kind of money. The original insurance had never been upgraded and they couldn’t qualify for Federal money.
The community pretty much died.
There was actor Brad Pitt’s foundation called Make It Right, who built maybe 40 new homes clustered around one or two streets. That didn’t make a dent. Worse, the very high end architects who volunteered to design energy efficient modern homes didn’t design houses for our very extreme climate. A number of them have serious issues. One was demolished because it couldn’t be repaired. Make It Right doesn’t seem to want to repair the others. As usual, the whole thing is ending up in court.
That’s the story.
Thank you all for your comments and good wishes. They matter. A lot.
I’ll post like I did yesterday when I can. But, producing yesterday’s post was very emotionally draining.
The picture. I saw it. I photographed it. This is a kind of photojournalism so I don’t tinker with it except to correct things like color and contrast. I do remember that when I made the picture it was so hot. So humid. We had one of those hot, hot summers. That’s what heated the gulf, which fueled the storm, which destroyed 80% of the city. Then, there was the smell. The stench of rotted everything. Of mold. Of the oil and chemicals that flooded everywhere. That’s what I remember when I look at this picture.
My Spotify playlist brought up a Mudcrutch song. Mudcrutch was the late Tom Petty’s first band. It had an Eagle in it, along with a few members of The Heartbreakers. It was a proto band. Petty decided to release an album of their music in 2006. It couldn’t have come at a better time. It helped us get through the early days after Hurricane Katrina when we sought refuge in New Mexico.
That one song on the playlist brought me to the album, which kicked my rear into gear. Time to start doing the final work on my dual book project, Abandoned New Orleans Books One and Two.
Off I went. Into the archives. I decided to go inside first. Into the buildings as they were, right after Hurricane Katrina. I also decided to let you see some of the pictures. Because? Because why not?
By the way, the line that caught me in that Mudcrutch album was, “”Lord, I’m just an orphan of the storm.” We felt that way.
Because it was still very hot when we returned to the city after the storm, I couldn’t work all day in my house. The heat and humidity was draining. I took breaks by driving around in my car. It had air conditioning It was the only way to get cool. I would stop and make pictures along the way.
Anyway, on to the pictures.
“Calling Buddha” is very close to me. I used to live in that house. It was the last place I lived before I bought the house in Esplanade Ridge. This house used to be in Lakeview. It’s gone now. I liked Lakeview well enough, but it never felt like New Orleans. It was safe and boring. The best thing about living there was that I could walk across the street and have a coffee. Later, I could walk across the street again and have lunch.
It was on one of my cool-down drives that I decided to look around in Lakeview. If you recall, there were two places were the levees completely failed. The Lower 9th Ward and Lakeview. The water blew through with such intensity that houses were lifted off their foundations. They were dumped on top of other houses. Cars were stacked on top of each other. It looked like a scene from the end of a war. Apparently, the house that I rented had been sold. The kitchen was completely redone. When I lived there, it had a 1950s look and feel. It was wonderful. If you look into the kitchen, you can see wooden Home Depot cabinets.
The backdoor was in tatters so in I went. I had to make pictures. If you look at the crown molding you can see how high the water rose. These folks were lucky the the house stayed on its foundation, which was a cement slab. The rushing, raging water turned everything this way and that. Yet, if you look in the kitchen, there are bowls on the counter just as they were left when the occupants evacuated. Ain’t that something?
After I settled in a bit, I started roaming around the city. I started looking in Central City a little bit. At that point a lot of the city was empty. It was fairly safe.
I took no chances. Like just about everybody else, I was armed. I remember walking into one of the few open restaurants in the French Quarter, looking around and thinking, pity the fool who comes in thinking he can rob the place. Everybody was wearing guns on their hips. It seemed to be the thing to do. Nobody gave anybody a second look. We shared the restaurant with soldiers from elements of the US Army’s First Cavalry Division and the 82nd Airborne, as well as police from everywhere and members of the Louisiana National Guard. Those guys were armed to the teeth.
Anyway, on one pass through Central City, I found this place. I entered through a broken wall. Somebody had been at work. Whoever it was started the hard work of rebuilding. I guess that person may not have left the city during the storm. A lot of poorer people couldn’t. They didn’t have cars. The busses slated for evacuation were parked in a bowl and were flooded over their roofs. Many of the survivors made their way to the Superdome and the convention center. Places that were supposed to be places of last refuge. They suffered there for days. Most of them were eventually bussed to Houston were they New Orleansized the neighborhoods they settled into. God bless ’em. Others were sent to places like Atlanta while the rest of their family was to someplace like Chicago.
The strangest resettlement happened to us. We rented an apartment in Albuquerque, New Mexico. About a month after we settled there, I walked outside to see my 7th Ward neighbor who lived a few houses from ours. She was staying with her nephew who lived two doors down from our new apartment. If you ever wanted to see two people dance and hug each other, you needed to see us. We were so happy to be alive and know that each other made it. We proceeded to New Orleansize things and have a bar-b-que in the front yard even though we had backyards. Good bless us.
“The last three days the rain was unstoppable.” Another Tom Petty line.
I made this picture towards the end of the time of my giant house emptying. This time I was able to do what most of us dream of doing. I opened my old office window and threw my water logged computer into the street. How many times have you felt like doing that after your computer crashed for the third time in an hour?
I was looking around the 7th Ward, which had almost been entirely under water during the flood that followed the storm. I was looking into houses that were in a state of partial remediation, which meant that many of them were stripped down to the studs as a way of removing the Aspergillus Mold that grew everywhere in the flooded houses in hot and humid weather. My eye was caught by a little sparkle. I stopped. There it was. A chandelier, hanging by its wires. Something that said, “this is my house.”
There you have it.
We are two weeks from hurricane season. That always spooks me a little. Time to organize some things and buy extra water, batteries and canned food that we’ll never eat unless we need to.
We had God’s own storm early Sunday morning. So much rain was dumped on the city that everywhere flooded. Even our neighborhood, which never floods. Luckily, for us, it did no damage. But, plenty of folks lost their cars. Some water crept into their houses. We all want to blame the city, but not this time. We are city that floods. Time for a t-shirt.
Two more things.
This is long enough already. My publisher was wondering why I have such deep files of abandoned buildings. When I told him, they were stunned. They are based in England. They forgot. Or, barely knew. They haven’t seen my final selection. Just wait until they do. Heh, heh.
There are lots of people who emigrated here after the storm, after the second storm and after the last hurricane. They don’t understand. They think they city will just flood like it does when there is a lot of rainfall. The don’t understand that they need to make an evacuation plan, or figure out what they might need to survive for many weeks without power or running water. Even when I talk about buying supplies that’s for something on the small side. If there is an evacuation order, we are gone. Maybe Hurricane Katrina was a 100 year event. Somehow, with climate change, I don’t think so.
Even though I use the word “abandoned” in my tags, these old trains really aren’t. The are owned by the Louisiana railroad historical society, or whatever they are called. They are a small group. The don’t return phone calls or emails. They work on their collection on Saturday.
That’s too bad.
They will never restore most of their old property. There is just too much of it. It mostly sits rusting and moldering away. I’m glad the own this stuff. If they didn’t, it would likely be scrapped. I like to see examples of the way we used to live which is part of my obsession with abandoned old buildings, trains and cars. I like to photograph all of that, which is what lead me to so many book contracts.
This picture wasn’t made in a bubble. Even though I was mostly just returning from an appointment, I was accidently working on a book. That’s cool, right?
No long tales of the past today. That doesn’t mean my journey through the past is over. It just means I’m showing you what I’m up to right now. Quite the contrary, I think my trip is just starting for real.
The picture. See it. Photograph it. That simple. Very little post production. If anything, I tuned down the color. That Leica glass is just a little too good. That’s saying something, yes?
It always does. My memory brings events to the forefront. Things I had safely tucked away.
It’s Mother’s Day weekend. Social media is full of pictures of other people’s moms. I probably will post one as well. It’s a signature picture.
Yesterday I railed (see what I did there with the picture and the words) about the traps of social media. Today, I’ll tell you that there are some good points. Our good points. The users’ good points. Not the companies.
The best good thing is social media is as an anniversary reminder. Time passes. People heal. My mom passed in 1996. A long time ago. I was in Hong Kong at the time. I returned home to find a message on my land line telephone recorder. My aunt called me. It was a couple of days old. I returned her call almost before I put my luggage down.
I returned to Hong Kong after I completed all that I needed to do, including take care of my dad who was living in an assisted living home. It was a sort of tract home that had five residents and about 12 caregivers. It was so comfortable that I wanted to live there. He seemed to enjoy it.
Back in Hong Kong,my friends looked after me. My main job was to produce books. My secondary job (Yes. I was busy) was to work work a Chinese travel magazine and photo agency. My main colleague there told me something that I think of today. She said, “When somebody dies who is over 80, we laugh.” That is the literal translation from Mandarin which really means “don’t mourn, celebrate their life.” My mom passed at 80.
You know, I was told it would take about five years before I would stop thinking of her almost daily. Whoever said that was right. But. Oh, you knew this was coming. That lasted for a good while. Then, it started to change. I don’t miss her like I did during those early years. But, I miss her in different ways. There’s things I’d like to ask her. For advise. For direction. I wish that she met the wonderful people in my life. Who came later.
I know you are wondering what this picture has to do with my mom. We traveled by train almost every summer of my early days from Los Angeles to New York City. The trains of my youth were The El Capitan, The Super Chief and a little later, The City of Los Angeles. They are mostly gone now. Some of their names live on through Amtrak, but they aren’t the same. For one thing, “dining in the diner” meant something back then. Sheesh, the City of Los Angeles used goldware, none of that tacky old silverware. The food was great and cooked to order. You dressed up to go eat.
This is symbolic. An old passenger car, hidden behind an overgrown fence. Abandoned and mostly forgotten, except by me. Just like my memories.
Technically speaking, the baby Leica did well in the rain. But, it really wasn’t more than just point and shoot. The Leica engineers in their kind of arrogant way, actually built a setting into it that is called “snapshot.” I laugh, but with auto everything cameras, how much of street photography is just that?
Motion. Movement. The combination of others moving and my own motion helped to create some kind of impressionistic art.
And, a lot of Ws.
I reckon that the Ws were created by NOLA’s potholed streets. Hit a hole and down the car goes. So too, with the other cars around me. Up. Down. Up. Down.
I was out looking for pictures one evening when I decided to go from the Garden District to the French Quarter. To do that I had to pass through the CBD. Central Business District. That’s where I ran into this pack of cars. And, a bus. I wasn’t really following them. But, they were in front of me.
I took advantage of the situation. That’s what my version of street photography really is about. Opportunism. And, luck.
If I had chosen some other profession, I’d probably be rich by now. I’d have a very easy life. What would be the fun in that?
Oh. NSU. A song from the legendary band, Cream. “Driving in my car, smoking my cigar, the only time I’m happy is when I play my guitar.”
To be more specific, a street portrait. It’s hung around in my portfolio for a few years now. Depending on who is looking at my work, I often start with this picture. If this doesn’t catch your eye, I don’t know what will. If it’s printed, a 20 inch deep version of this picture stuns even the most jaded of viewers. Like me.
I hope you realize that last few weeks of pictures are from the past. Most of you have never seen them. A few of you might, if you’ve been here a while.
This picture was made during the jazz funeral of Uncle Lionel. His family name is Baptiste. He was kin to almost every musical Baptiste that came out of New Orleans. If you watch Late Night with Stephen Colbert, you know one of his family members. Bandleader and musician, Jon Baptiste. Yeah. He’s one of us.
Uncle Lionel’s funeral took forever. Nature didn’t want to let him go. It was rained out twice as I recall. The third time was a charm. It was for me too. I was energized. I was everywhere. I made about four or five portfolio pieces. I was beat afterwards. After all, July in New Orleans. 90 degrees with about 90% humidity. Staying hydrated was the key.
I’m not so sure that I could do it today. I could try. But, it would only be for somebody like him. We’ve had massive second lines after this one. Some were for David Bowie, for Prince. Like that. I get wanting to mourn and to celebrate. But, that’s not what I’m about. I’d rather photograph the culture. The things about New Orleans. The people who make the city what it is. Today.
Maybe tomorrow. If we are lucky.
Apparently, New Orleans has actually lost some population. This is the first time since Hurricane Katrina. There are a lot of theories about it. Some say it might be because of simple migration to Jefferson Parish and St. Bernard Parish. Taxes are lower. Services are better. Crime is less.
Another theory says that the folks who are the culture have been leaving because of gentrification. Where one building was divided into two or three apartments, now it is one house.
The final theory — at least among the ones that I heard — is that the gentrifiers themselves are leaving. It’s hard to live in New Orleans. It was made a little easier by Air BnB. But, now that they have been restricted, especially in The Bywater, the folks who moved here post-Katrina, are leaving.
I don’t know whether this is a good thing or a bad thing. On one hand, they brought a lot of money to a city that needs it. Even if it was just for allied businesses. On the other, they are the leaders in killing the culture that brought them here in the first place.
It’s interesting to watch. This is my twentieth year here, with a break in New Mexico after the storm. I came here because I liked it. I never wanted to change anything.
Wet weather is a way of life down here in the swamp. We live with it. We live in it. We get wet. We dry off. We get wet again. Sort of like in the heat and humidity of summer when four or five quick showers might be the order of the day.
I was talking to somebody about the heat and humidity of summer. We agree. While it gets mighty uncomfortable, we build up to it. But, for tourists, it’s brutal. They come from someplace milder, or at least dryer, and they just die in our summers.
That’s a reason that hotels and restaurants are so inexpensive during July and August. They’ll do anything to attract customers. In fact, many restaurants close for a couple of weeks during August. Not only do they lose money by being open, but it’s a good time to do the deep cleaning and other maintenance that they put off during their busy seasons.
This picture is a pretty good example of our attitude towards weather. He’s been to a grocery store and he’s headed some place else. His only concession to the rain is that he is walking his bike. He doesn’t want to hit a slick patch and end up on his butt.
My only concession to the rain was to stand under an overhang to protect my gear. Me? I don’t care if I get wet. If I wasn’t carrying cameras I’d be out walking in the wet weather.
The real trick was image exposure. I had to balance my need for blur with the falling rain. So, I focused on the rain and let everything else fall where it may. Actually, I didn’t focus on anything. I’m fairly fast at manual focus. But, rain? Oh no. I let the camera do its thing. Even with that, the rain isn’t all that sharp. I doubt with low light and such narrow parameters that anything can be truly razor-sharp. I don’t care. As Henri Cartier Bresson said, “Sharpness is such a bourgeois concept.” For those of you new to photography Google him. He is the father of the decisive moment and one of the first photographers to switch to “miniature” cameras. He used 35mm Leicas. Film cameras. Follow the links from him to other photographers. You’ll learn a lot.
A classic dive in the French Quarter. The food is good. Hamburgers are cooked under a hubcap. You probably can’t finish a side order of french fries. And, you’ll never know who or what you’ll see.
Go there late at night and the trannies will perform for you. Especially if they think they can get a rise out of you. I can use that name in this era of no fun, no fools, because that’s what they tell you to use. It’s all good fun. They laugh. You laugh. If you’ve brought an out of town quest, they sit there stunned, until they realize it’s better to join in. And, the pictures? Sheesh. They pose. The waiters pose. The cooks pose.
I tell you. It’s a kind of street theater.
I made this picture on an early Sunday morning walk. That’s why there is condensation on the window. Cold, dry air up against a window that has moist, warm air pressing against it, and guess what happens. The picture was easy. See it. Photograph it. That’s how I work when I’m wandering around.
I haven’t been doing that lately. There are a lot of reasons for that. But, it’s coming to an end. I miss working this way. I miss exploring. Photographing whatever happens in front of me. Whatever comes to me.