Picaresque is a paranoid portrait of modern New Orleans and its environs. Its goal is to exhaustively plug gaps in the city’s dominant narratives before mother nature turns the place to Atlantis. All 600+ pictures are here; what follows is a brief introduction to the project and its themes.
Photographic depictions of New Orleans overwhelmingly portray the picturesque “sliver by the river” and the lower ninth ward. My project focuses pointedly on everything but. Except in satire, I try to avoid the city’s established cultural pantheon. I’m trying to find an alternative pantheon in the margins. I see social media as a projection of collective consciousness, which in New Orleans is mostly celebratory. I'm in search of the city’s more tragicomic, ironic collective unconscious.
Social angst in New Orleans primarily crystallizes under the wider umbrellas of race, class, gender, and politics. All are major parts of this project, but ultimately as a flock of red herrings orbiting the real elephant in the room: water. Climate change, rising sea levels, and the rapid erosion of the Louisiana coastline are the project’s true subjects. As a narrator, I’m an outsider/insider Chicken Little. Instead of hysterical fear of the sky falling, I'm preoccupied with the sea rising.
The point, however, is not to engender hopelessness or fatalism. Nor is whether the city ultimately survives the twenty-first century. I'm trying to convey how profoundly the specter of death can enhance the experience of life. When the doctor gives you three months to live, it completely changes your perspective. Living in post-Katrina New Orleans is kind of like living in Pompeii both before and after the volcano blew. My aim is to translate the poignance of that experience through photography and writing. I'm trying to imbue every particle of light I capture with an expiration date to render it all the more precious.
Vernacular Ephemera: I already wrote some about how this whole project started unexpectedly: I'd photograph things and they would disappear within days. It felt kind of like Midas' curse.
Threatened Architecture: The same would happen with buildings. I started compulsively rolling around town to photograph my favorites, especially the weathered ones, before they were destroyed or fixed up to the nines. For the first few weeks, the project was about how astonishingly fast the city seemed to change once you paid very close attention.
Graffiti Wars: In the process, I started to appreciate New Orleans' idiosyncratic, tagging-dominated graffiti. It never appealed to me until I directly engaged with it. The most interesting dynamic here is one of my story's principal anti-heroes: Fred Radke, AKA "The Gray Ghost", who militantly whitewashes graffiti, though unavoidably in a style all his own. Now he has imposters who cover up rival tags, but in color, and it's impossible to know who's who or what's what--metaphorical catnip!
Photography as Painting: I'm crazy about painting, but can't do it, so I started to make photos that look like abstract paintings. Most I found on the sides of dumpsters. The more I made them, I realized I was conducting a kind of meditation on gentrification, the hot topic of recent years. Wherever there's gentrification, dumpsters follow.
Black Lives Matter: All of these pictures were taken in 2015, the most racially charged year I've experienced. New Orleans remains a majority black city, but it's getting whiter. Its extraordinary culture derives almost exclusively from the creations of black people. The city pays plenty of homage to its musicians and Mardi Gras Indians, but more "quotidian blackness" plays only a minor part in the city's dominant narratives. The route through town I gradually developed encompasses the main arteries of black New Orleans, the parts of the city tourists are/were historically warned away from.
Tragicomedy, Irony: When photographing the well-known parts of New Orleans and its many social rituals, my mode would shift to the carnivalesque strategies of humor, irony, satire, tragicomedy, inversion of cliches, and depictions of beloved, hilarious anti-heroes (like the ubiquitous injury lawyer Morris Bart, below).
Everyday People: From here, I started finding and seeking out "marginal heroes," or extraordinary ordinary people. They're in more abundance here than anywhere I've ever been, and they're the main reason New Orleans is such a magical place to live.
Adopted Family: Some I became close with, and they let me into their lives.
Kindred Spirits: Others I discovered online. Timothy Lachin, an obscure Mandeville-born psychoanalyst and writer practicing in Paris, was first. His brilliant writing on New Orleans and its unconscious completely changed the way I see the city. The late Jeff Lamb was another great lakes midwesterner who made portraits of houes much like I did. William Grenier had a similar approach to color and subject matter, and made me try to step my game up as a photographer more than anyone I've recently encountered. These photos are highly symbolic, difficult to categorize, and as such, they're my personal favorites, the ones I would hang in my own house.
Further Afield: I gradually started casting a wider net. I spent a week driving up and down the river road to Baton Rouge. I followed the main arteries of New Orleans until they ended in the gulf. A lot of the area surrounding New Orleans feels mythical. Delacroix felt like driving beside the river Styx into Hades. A cemetery in St. Bernard Parish is what originally made me feel like I was living in Pompeii. The bulk of the narrative takes place within New Orleans, but this slice of it has become equally important.
The Shadow of Death: Of course, there are lots and lots of amazing cemeteries in Louisiana. I'd stop at every one I passed, especially during or after heavy rain. Flooded reflections in the grass bring the earth and the sky closer together.
Don't Shoot the Messenger: The more I drove around the area outside of NOLA, the more I turned into chicken little. I started seeing everything more symbolically. Science just gave New Orleans (and south Florida) no more than 100 years to exist, but no one seems to want to talk about it. This became the umbrella hovering over the entire project.
When I started showing these photos to people, I had to provide some narration and backstory, especially to people outside of New Orleans. So I started writing about them. Once people read that, especially outside of New Orleans, they didn't get the lion's share of the references. In the meantime, I was studying critical editions of Huck Finn and Don Quixote, was blown away by their metafictional elements. Almost immediately, I started annotating my own text (unfortunately, the annotations themselves were recently swallowed by the internet).
Both titles helped me make sense of existence in New Orleans and sparked a love affair with classic literature. The wonderful illustrations in both set a precedent in combining text and illustrations. Generally speaking, in art, photography is expected to speak for itself, and in the media, photographs supplement the text. Here, the text illustrates the pictures, and meta-commentary supplements the text. I use writing and photography together because I felt that alone, each fell short of conveying my subject’s endless, impossible complexity.
In the meantime, at the behest of my friends and family, I tried to start putting this stuff out into the world. Despite my considerable technical acumen, it's been a fucking nightmare. This led me to Marshall McLuhan, and a deep consideration of how technology changes us, and what art can do about it.
Now, I'm at a halfway point. There's still a lot of terrain to cover. The rough plan is to keep at it until mid-May, motivated as always by the fear that everything I'm photographing could wash away by the next hurricane season.