In a similar way, Jennifer Shaw has been photographing her life in New Orleans for a long time through her toy cameras. For “The Rising,” McCabe selected from her ongoing series The Space Between: dreamy black-and-white captures of spontaneous moments with her young children, often topless in the heat or investigating their boundaries with adults.
McCabe calls Shaw the “patron saint of photography here in New Orleans. She’s kind of the heart and soul of the New Orleans Photo Alliance (NOPA), which is central to the revitalization of the photo community here.”
In addition to being a photographer and teacher, Shaw is the director of PhotoNOLA, the premier event that NOPA coordinates each December. The festival began in 2006 with a consortium of galleries and art markets, then added on a portfolio review in 2007. Since then, it has expanded to a citywide celebration of photography in which each major art institution participates, as well as dozens of smaller exhibitions in galleries, foreign consulates, and even dive bars. The portfolio review and workshops draw hundreds of photographers from all over the country, who are attracted not only to the picturesque city but to the high quality of portfolio reviewers available to them for a substantially lower fee than those at Photolucida in Portland or Review Santa Fe.
In fact, after visiting New Orleans to participate in a PhotoNOLA panel in 2013, Tammy Mercure decided to move there within six months. Mercure prolifically produces expressive, colorful photos from her travels to unique celebrations, fairs, and festivals along the Gulf Coast. She’s brought with her a willingness to share her knowledge, working alongside the Contemporary Art Center and Press Street, a literary and art education collective, to display and draw attention to the growing practice of self-produced and limited edition photobooks. Her enthusiasm for the eccentric shines through the portraits included in the show.
The most striking collection comes from Colin Roberson, a young photographer and teacher at the New Orleans Community Print Shop and Darkroom. His large black-and-white prints are from his series Close to the Knives. Roberson immersed himself in the gay strip club scene of the French Quarter in the wake of a breakup and took his camera along with him. The photos focus on pairs and couples of all kinds, contrasting his separation from his departed lover. Roberson’s photos slide beyond awareness of his subject matter into fluency with their intimate contexts. He reveals faces completely taken with the salacious attraction of running anonymously through the old French Quarter and the cash-heavy commerce that goes along with it.
Awareness of South Louisiana’s issues has grown since the storm, and stories of disappearing wetlands are the basis for hundreds of documentary projects. William Widmer is a freelancer whose work fuels feature stories about Louisiana life for national outlets like the New York Times and Al Jazeera America. Beneath the beauty of the coastal landscapes he shoots is the firm reminder that the land is slipping away and certain communities are critically endangered. Widmer is just one of many photographers taking advantage of the high demand for stories about Louisiana’s precarious and peculiar state of being.
“The Rising” will introduce these photographers and their varied techniques to many of the visitors expected to tour the city during the lead-up to the anniversary, but the exhibition still feels limited in spite of its diversity. L. Kasimu Harris, David Armentor, AnnieLaurie Erikson, and Vanessa Centeno are only represented by one or two works, which only hint at the full scope of their aesthetic and participation in the wider photographic community.
The exhibition could have benefitted from being placed in a larger gallery in the museum and a more thorough demonstration of the way the different collection points of talent—NOPA, the New Orleans Community Print Shop, the St. Claude Arts District, the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, and other educational programs—are helping the community rise from the setbacks of 10 years ago. To have all that energy boiled down to a brief walkthrough is underwhelming despite the strong talent that is on view.
McCabe told me about this struggle. “This show could’ve easily been twice this size or I could’ve had twice as many photographers. That was the hard part: trying to decide who to put in. I tried to pick people who might not have been the first choices that people thought of so I could show the range of processes being practiced in New Orleans, the range of aesthetics, the range of technologies that are being used. But the last thing I wanted to do was have one piece by thirty different people.”
For the out-of-town visitors who make up the majority of the Ogden’s audience and who might not have the chance or time to visit each neighborhood or art institution, “The Rising” gives partial access to the variety of worlds that exist within the New Orleans environment. The photographers are representatives not just of other artists but other voices, unique to their place, their time, maybe even to their particular block. For natives and even recent transplants, however, the show is a reminder that New Orleans is a place that constantly repeats an open call to participate in any of its communities.
“The Rising” is on view through September 20 at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.