Thursday, October 15, 2009

Look and Leave

I spent lunchtime one day last week at two exhibitions that deal with the urban experience in two very different forms.

The first featured the work of photographer Jane Fulton Alt who documented New Orleans after the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

Alt, also clinical social worker, was on volunteer service working with other health care professionals accompanying the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward returning to view what was left of their homes for the first time, three months after the disaster. The effort was dubbed "look and leave" because the area was in no way inhabitable at the time. In her statement Alt writes of the effect on her, both emotionally and physically. So moved was she by the experience that she felt the need for others to see the ravages of one of the worst natural disasters in this nation's history. Thus began the project.

Alt's formally composed, large format digital prints are unpopulated, traces of life are depicted archeologically, in bits and pieces, personal momentos left behind, signs painted by triage workers indicating what was to be found inside a flooded home, a recently built church intact save for the fact that its steeple had toppled into the street. Covering everything is a whitish silt that settled after the flood waters receeded, dried and cracked in the sun, forming a ghostly patina. In a particularly moving picture, the interior of a home with fresh footprints in the cracked silt bears testimony to the length of time it had been deserted.

Most of the photographs were made in the Lower Ninth. Two exceptions are of New Orleans icons at both ends of the spectrum, one, a picture of the facade of the now notorious Superdome where thousands of flood victims sought refuge. The other is an atmospheric image of St. Louis Cathedral behind Clark Mills' famous equestrian statue of Andrew Jackson shrouded in a dense fog. The latter image might at first appear to be a promotional shot for a tourist brochure, except for the smashed lamp post in the foreground.

There is no such subtlety in the photographs of the Lower Ninth.

The depth of the devastation is so numbing that coming to the exhibit with a blank slate, a viewer might be overwhelmed by the banality of the destruction portrayed in the pictures.

Of course one would have to have lived under a rock for the past five years not to have some idea of the dreadful toll that Katrina took in the Gulf region, and especially in New Orleans.

To bring home the point the exhibit includes a soundtrack of New Orleans music, a slide show of photographs of the people of New Orleans, and ample didactic text of Alt's, describing her work. I don't normally like over abundant text and gallery soundtracks. I feel that the pictures should speak for themselves and that music is a too easy a venue for swaying the emotions of the viewer. But in this case the music and the text are necessary in that they ground the work as they evoke a sense of place to anyone who has ever known what it means "to miss New Orleans."

In her statement, Jane Fulton Alt notes that the visits of many of the people to their homes in the Lower Ninth Ward were both their first and their last.

I once had a conversation with a New Orlinean who told me that all's back to normal in his hometown. If I were to visit he continued, I'd never know anything ever happened.

I knew exactly what he meant. The French Quarter, the Garden District, all the restaurants, shops, and music venues are up and running and your casual visitor might not notice anything wrong. But in another account I heard what was a different truth. You may not see it in the physical city, downtown that is, but you see it in the eyes of the people who wait on you. New Orleans will never be the same.

A book of this work has been published. It is named after the effort Alt participated in which inspired the project, Look and Leave. It is available in the Cultural Center bookshop.

While Alt's photographs are an elegy for a lost city, the exhibit across the street at the Chicago Tourism Center was a full steam ahead look at the possibilities of the future. It was called Big, Bold, Visionary, Chicago Considers the Next Century. Unfortunately the show came down this week but it contunues to live online here.

I will discuss this exhibit in a later post. Please stay tuned.

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