Chef Leah Chase.

Leah Chase.

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.

Rest in Heaven, Chef Leah.

You’ve earned it.

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Portrait
Giant smile.

A portrait.

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.


The survivor.

New Orleans stories.

Some I have to dredge up from deep in my memory. Others not so much. This is one of the others.

I was walking down the street in Treme. I was headed to a second line. I didn’t know there was a second line that started earlier. A jazz funeral. As I passed by, I saw this man sitting on a box in front of what I assumed was his home. A couple of friends were standing with him and talking.

Look at this man. How could I not ask if I could make his picture? He said yes and I did my thing. Afterward, I asked if he was headed to the second line that I came to photograph. He shook his head and said no.

One of his friends told me something that sticks with me to this day. He said that this man had just finished playing in a second line. A jazz funeral. I asked, “who was it for?” His friend replied, “his brother.”

Looking at the picture now, I can see the pain in his eyes. But, it never occurred to me when I was photographing him, just as it never occurred to him to shake his head no, and say something like, “not today.”

It’s good portrait. It’s nothing earth-shaking, but it matters to me.


Golden woman.

Mardi Gras.

What it is. What it isn’t.

This post is driven by a couple of comments I read on Facebook. It seems that a small city in Indiana might not be able to have Mardi Gras because a bar closed.

Really?

Is that what you think of Mardi Gras? Sure, we have big parades. The krewes toss beads and other stuff. You know, “Trow me sumptin’ mistah.” There is plenty of boozing and a little debauchery, usually on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. But, that’s not all.

At the heart of it, Mardi Gras season — Carnival — starts on the Twelfth Night after Christmas when the wise men journey to Bethlehem to bring the baby Jesus gifts. It lasts until midnight Mardi Gras Day when the police clear out the remaining revelers.  Night turns into day. And, it’s Ash Wednesday. The beginning of Lent.

In other words, it’s a religious holiday. Imagine that.

It’s also a time when we locals celebrate quietly. It’s more-or-less like Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. We visit with friends and family. We gather around meals. We bring little gifts. The more blue blood among us go to fancy balls and events that are by invitation only. The big krewes, like Muses, have balls, lunches and other events for their members and guests. It’s an honor to be invited.

For our part, we host a brunch on the Sunday before Mardi Gras Day. Our friends and family mingle, eat, have a drink or two. If they want, they can walk up a couple blocks and see the parades on St. Charles Avenue. We are also lucky enough to be invited to two balls. We aren’t blue bloods. Imagine me in evening wear with a little mask. That’s what I do. That’s what they do.

There is a lot of symbolism. Mardi Gras Day is the day when the Indians reveal their new suits for the first time. For some, a year’s worth of work comes down to this one day. For others, they’ll show their new suits throughout the year. It’s a day when Zulu leads the parades. They mask in blackface. It harkens back to a time when they couldn’t afford masking materials. The  so-called Take It Down movement wants them to stop. The Zulus just laughed and started dancing. As far as I’m concerned, the Zulus can do whatever they want. They are the soul of Mardi Gras. Maybe of the entire city.

The million or so tourists who flood our streets, drink way too much, and fight for beads and other “throws” don’t know any of this. It’s all a giant party to them. One day of being stupid. Some try to arrive on the day, itself. With blocked streets, heavy traffic and the parades they are lucky to get anywhere near in time for… what?

I’m not attacking the partiers. Sheesh. We need the money. I’m explaining what those Mardi Gras partiers in other cities don’t understand.

When I was exiled to the desert after Hurricane Katrina, I went to Mardi Gras in Old Town Albuquerque. Make no mistake, Christmas there is breathtaking. The onset of fall is wonderful. But, Mardi Gras? Not so much. It made my very sad. I think we went during our first year there. It was on a Saturday. Sheesh. Whatever happened to Fat Tuesday? I was so homesick that we flew back to New Orleans for a cobbled together Mardi Gras, because 80% of the city was still broken. It’s when I saw Zulu warriors — the real ones from Africa — walking in place of our Zulus because most of them couldn’t get home. If they could, they had no home to come back to.

That’s what Mardi Gras means.

The picture. This is the one I planned for yesterday. I intentionally made it contrasty. WordPress “helped me” by tuning it down. She walked by me while I was sitting on a wall getting ready for the next parade. I couldn’t catch up with her. That is, until we both walked into the local grocery store for lunch. I asked if I could photograph her. Even though anybody masking is fair game, it was our lunch break. Heh! I made some smiling portraits and I made this one. I like it best. My agencies will like the smiling pictures. They are trying to make money for us. Besides, you can see me working in the reflection in her sunglasses. Nice shorts, huh?


A well deserved break.

Santa Claus came to town.

He needed a break after a very long Christmas Eve when he zipped and zoomed all over the world delivering Christmas presents to all the good girls, boys and anybody else who believes.

2019. We are here now. We are hoping for a better year than the one that came before. With that in mind, I had two choices. Another “best of” collection. This one assembled from my posts on Instagram by some sort of AI software. Or, posting a new picture.

A look back. I want to look forward.

So, I selected my second option. Santa drinking a beer while he was watching a second line in Central City. You can tell that he’s relaxing because he’s doing something a lot of men of a certain age do when they aren’t working. He’s wearing a tropical shirt rather than a suit and tie.

Notice that phrase. “A lot of men…” I don’t wear a suit and tie often. I have a hobby job. At least that’s what a Chinese friend of mine calls it. That’s sort of a literal translation from Mandarin. It really means that I have a job that I love so much I pour endless hours into doing it. I can put all of my passion into it. I like getting up in the morning. Because, my job is like a hobby to me.

That’s why even though I’ve retired from the day-to-day running of my business — at least that’s what the U.S. government thinks — I’ll never really retire from my art. I like what I do. So, why would I retire?

I’ll be 85 years old and still hobbling along, photographing New Orleans culture. Maybe I’ll need one of those little powered scooters. I’ll soup it up so that it goes faster. I’ll get a big, loud horn. I’ll outrun second lines and make my pictures because I will have scared everybody out of the way.

I can see it now.

Of course, many of the band and social club members will also be 85 years old. I can see it now. Dueling scooters. How fun will that be?

You can see how my New Years day off is going. Fun. Lots of fun.

Happy New Year.

More new pictures tomorrow.


It’s all the same.

I met this guy on the way to somewhere else. That’s when the best pictures happen.

I was walking to the second line in Central City. I parked a few blocks away. A little distance is important so I could make a quick getaway. That is, if I want to jump to another location. I’m not fast enough anymore to cut through the streets on foot and get ahead of it.

He was sitting on a little stoop in front of a battered old house. He saw the cameras on my shoulder. He called me over. He wanted me to take his picture. So I did. He wanted something in return. I know the drill. I gave him a couple of bucks (that pro tip thing). He stuck the dollar bills in his mouth. I don’t know why. I took another picture.

Which brings me to the picture.

I sort of overlooked it at first. I looked at it again. The color wasn’t working. I converted it to black and white. Then it worked. This might be my best picture of the year. Ten months into the year and I finally made a picture.

Imagine that.


The eyes that made other pictures.

 

Eyes.

They say that eyes are the window the soul. I believe that to be true. I think most portraits should be simple. See into the person. See what they are about. See who they are.

I’ve been using this little girl’s eyes as a design element.

After discussing the eyes with a number of you, I thought it would be a good idea to show the portrait. I cropped they original image to get this tight image. The background information just cluttered the important part of the picture — her eyes.

Then, me being me, I had to tinker with the image until I arrived at this point. My vision was fairly simple. I wanted the final image to look ancient. I wanted it to look beaten up, like it had been buried somewhere. You have to understand that I’m easily influenced. I have been watching a couple of archeology-based shows on various streaming services. The information sort of went into my brain through my eyes. I had to dump it somewhere. So…

That’s the story. What influences your work?

 


This dog. The dog who sees things.

A portrait.

This photograph is inspired by Debra at Breathlighter who commented something about my giving artistic credit to a dog. This dog. She’s a cocker spaniel who demands that I take her for walks. So, walk we do. All over the place. Some walks are long. Some are short. Some take just enough time for to “take care of business.”

The picture. She hopped up on the bed — she’s allowed to do that — and I decided to make a few portraits. Since I can’t leave well enough alone, I tinkered with the original file until I made this photograph. I’m actually not so sure about this picture. She looks sort of mean. She’s anything but that. She never met a human that she didn’t like. She likes cats. She likes some dogs.


Dancing days are here again.

It could be something else. The picture.

It reminds me of the fifth Led Zeppelin album. Houses of the Holy. Mostly, it’s the sky. An odd shade of popsicle orange. It is a little weird. Mysterious. Spooky.

Another of my portraits on the scene.

I made it prior to all the events of St. Joseph’s Night, when Mardi Gras Indian tribes roamed the streets of the city hoping to show off their pretty suits.

This little guy isn’t quite dressed for his tribe. One day, if he works at it, he will be.

Just like me, he was interested in what was going on in the cemetery as light began to fall. I asked his dad if I could photograph him. After he said yes, I let his dad direct him… kind of. When I was done, I handed his dad my business card. Maybe one day, he’ll ask for a print or two. Always free to the people who I photograph. Charging them is not how I earn my living. Without them in the picture there would be no picture. It’s a fair deal all around.

The picture. Well, this’ll teach me. I passed it over when I was curating the images to show you the next day. Here we are almost a month later. I was recurating pictures for another collection when I saw this one.

It was a little technically deficient because of the back light and how he was standing. I tinkered with it. Somewhere way back in my brain a bell went off. The color of the sky reminded me of something. Something from 1973. The aforementioned Led Zeppelin album. From back when albums were albums.

That got me thinking that I should listen to it. I haven’t for a long while. So, I did. Man, is it good. It’s a transitional sort of album. Listen to it if you get a moment. It might not be what you are thinking.