Renae Friedley’s photographic narrative had to take a detour through Georgia before morphing into a love letter to Louisiana.
“I was living in Columbus, Georgia, and I hated it,” she says. “I read every book and watched every movie and television show about Louisiana that I could find. I missed my home state, and I realized how much I loved it.”
That’s when the title for her ongoing photo essay-turned-book came to her — “Loving Louisiana.”
She wasn’t simply taking photos of places, but everything she loved about her state, including its people, culture and traditions.
That love can be seen in the exhibit “Loving Louisiana: Celebrating the Cultures and Traditions of South Louisiana,” which is also the name of her book. The exhibit runs through March 20 at Louisiana’s Old State Capitol. The show also features costumes loaned by New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indians and Native American pine needle baskets loaned by the LSU Museum of Natural Science, Anthropology Division.
It all comes together at the end of a journey that took more than a decade.
Friedley began taking photographs for her master’s thesis at Southern University at New Orleans, where she was earning a degree in museum studies. The idea was to curate a project, and since she was a photographer, why not curate her own work?
Friedley’s professor liked the idea, and she began what would eventually become the exhibit.
But Hurricane Katrina would have to hit New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast before Friedley would add her love to the project.
Living in Pass Christian, Mississippi, when the storm hit, she fled to Columbus for safety.
Homesickness set in when she realized that everything she loved was in Louisiana. She returned to the state and resumed her project, then realized that she was photographing what she loved.
“I knew exactly what I was going to title the series after that,” Friedley says. “I asked another photographer, my friend, Michael Styborski, to help me, because I knew I couldn’t photograph it all by myself.”
The duo concentrated their work in South Louisiana, focusing on cultures that were established in the state in the 19th century, including the Native Americans, Acadians, African-Americans, French, Spanish, Italians, Irish and Germans.
“I was looking at cultures whose traditions have been celebrated through the centuries,” Friedley says. “The same traditions we celebrate now were celebrated then. We see it in our festivals, music and food.”
Friedley also highlighted places and landscapes that are as much a part of the traditions as are the people. There are the sugar cane fields, the Buddha’s temple in Avery Island’s Jungle Gardens, the rubble around the St. Louis Cathedral at the end of Mardi Gras and the clean, whitewashed graves surrounding the crucifix in the Ascension of Our Lord Catholic Church cemetery in Donaldsonville.
For visitors, the exhibit “gives us a chance to show them some of the traditions in our state,” says museum curator Lauren Davis.
And to show them that Louisiana is more than Mardi Gras. There’s Friedley’s photos of dancing in Breaux Bridge, the Irish Channel Corner Club leading the St. Patrick’s Day parade through New Orleans’ Irish Channel and the crowning of the Strawberry Queen in Ponchatoula.
The photos are also in Friedley’s book, which she published herself.
“I have experience in publishing,” she says, “I was the publisher and editor of the Gulf Coast Arts and Entertainment Review from 1996 to 2005.”
The magazine was based in New Orleans and highlighted arts, entertainment and lifestyles from the Crescent City to Fairhope, Alabama. She’s also worked as a writer and photographer for TV Guide, Denver Magazine, Shot in LA, and the Sun Coast Beach Reporter.
Friedley now makes Baton Rouge her home, though she still misses New Orleans.
“I couldn’t withstand another hurricane,” she says. “I lost everything in Katrina, and I’m close enough to New Orleans in Baton Rouge. I’m in Louisiana, and it’s what I love.”