New Orleans is a city where reality has always been subjective.
And the photographs of L. Kasimu Harris, now on view at the McKenna Museum of African American Art, are about as subjective and personal a depiction of post-Katrina life in New Orleans as you’re likely to see anywhere.
Although 2015 has been a year full of exhibitions commemorating the 10 years that elapsed since the greatest natural and man-made disaster in the city’s history, Harris’ images manage to stand out for their unusually intimate point of view and moments of quiet, sharply observed intensity.
“After Hurricane Katrina, I felt an obligation to tell another narrative, one opposed to the horrific images I saw of this city at the time,” said Harris. “And it was a way to process my feelings. I felt like I didn’t have many images of the ‘New Orleans that was.’ So very quickly, I dedicated myself to documenting the changing landscape.”
Much of Harris’ imagery will be familiar to anyone who experienced life in New Orleans after the storm. But Harris has an eye for subtle details — an open door in an expanse of abandoned cars beneath an overpass, a gentle shaft of light illuminating the storm-ravaged interior of a dining room — that set his photographs well apart from the now-cliched genre of “disaster porn.”
Some photos challenge our collective memories of what actually “happened” in those fraught months and years after Katrina. Everyone remembers former Mayor Ray Nagin’s infamous “Chocolate City” speech, which drew nationwide attention to the deep-rooted racial and economic tensions that have characterized New Orleans over much of its history.
But Harris’ image of an older African-American woman clutching a Mitch Landrieu campaign sign, her expression both resolute and resigned, with a group of what appears to be college students with Nagin signs in the background offers evidence that the greater issue was never as black and white — literally and figuratively — as the media made it seem.
Over and over, Harris reminds us that the reality of New Orleans is always more nuanced than how it may appear on the surface.
Several photos suggest a narrative beyond the image itself. The solitary figure gazing out of a window in “Kappa Man, Dreamer Man, Preacher Man” recalls the overlapping and sometimes arbitrary values we assign to individual identities.
And the title of “The Road Ahead,” depicting an elegantly dressed couple behind the wheel of a car, can be read in various ways as well: Are we meant to think about where they’re heading, or what they’re leaving behind?
Harris’ account of the day he took the photograph (which depicts former Saints player Malcolm Jenkins and his wife, Morrisa) adds another layer to the story.
“Part of the shoot was at Old Algiers Point Bar,” he said. “After I returned home to celebrate, I panicked because I could not find the memory cards from my camera. I had Jabari Greer, then Jenkins’ teammate, pick me up and bring me back to the bar. The bar had two Saints players there that day and no one even knew! But I didn’t find the memory card there. It was in my photo bag the entire time.”
Thoughtful groupings of photographs by exhibition curator Jennifer M. Williams create intimate areas to contemplate common themes and motifs in Harris’ work. One set of vignettes tells the story of the amputation of Harris’ mother’s leg, told in quiet details — a pair of feet enclosed in a pair of worn slippers with the tip of a cane nearby, the press of a stethoscope against an elderly body — that communicate a gradual unfolding of events over time.
Indeed, the presence of Harris’ late mother Eartha is felt strongly throughout the exhibition.
“She had a relentless drive for getting things done and always thought outside the box, and was never paralyzed by the opinions of others,” said Harris. “She pushed me creatively and was my first editor. She recently passed and is featured prominently in this exhibit, so it was a tribute to our relationship in her last days.”
It’s a moving and powerful tribute, and an exhibition that New Orleans audiences are fortunate enough to have had extended an additional several weeks until Nov. 14. Don’t miss it.