Nothing divides the history of New Orleans as decisively as Hurricane Katrina: There was life here before the storm and life here after the storm.
Given the starkness of that division, it’s not surprising that many photographers have approached the subject of New Orleans in one of two opposing ways over the past decade: either through a nostalgic lens for the way things used to be or with a detached observation of what things are in the process of becoming.
But most of the work in a new group show at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art follows its own path.
“The Rising” features work by 11 photographers, including some who lived in New Orleans before the storm and others who moved here since. While all share a common subject matter in the context of the show, most of their images avoid the kind of visual clichés that have come to characterize a large part of post-Katrina imagery.
“Instead of ‘disaster porn,’ we wanted to show the positive aspects of what’s happened since Katrina,” said Ogden Museum curator Richard McCabe, who organized the show. “This work is more of a metaphor for what’s happened in New Orleans over the last 10 years.”
As a result, “The Rising” challenges certain assumptions of how the storm affected the fabric of life in New Orleans.
And like the New Orleans Museum of Art’s excellent if even more opaque “Ten Years Gone,” running concurrently across town, it confounds expectations of what a “Katrina show” should be.
Sophie Lvoff’s dreamy cityscapes show a New Orleans in an eternal state of suspended animation seemingly untouched by any kind of outside influence, meteorological or otherwise.
It’s impossible to tell without looking at the wall label whether the image of a tangled expanse of greenery poised to swallow up an empty phone booth on Jackson Avenue was taken before or after the storm, and her now-iconic view of the interior of the Saturn Bar (which, along with a few other photos here, was a highlight of the Prospect.3 triennial last fall) conveys the same boozy twilight of a space that has remained essentially unchanged for decades.
In general, the more engaging images in “The Rising,” like Lvoff’s, were created either by artists who moved to New Orleans after the storm or who documented the demographic changes that have been taking place here over the past 10 years.
Both Vanessa Centeno and Jonathan Traviesa speak to the emergence of a more visible Latino community post-Katrina.
Centeno’s gloriously macabre “Saint Things” are fantastical self-portraits that incorporate references to a particularly florid strain of New Orleans Catholicism with a found-object aesthetic.
And Traviesa’s sensitive yet unsentimental portraits of recently transplanted workers and their family members personify another dimension of the “new New Orleans.”
It’s New Orleans native Colin Roberson’s photographs documenting a hard-edged slice of the downtown demimonde, however, that represent some of the show’s strongest moments. Combining an aesthetic distilled from equal parts Diane Arbus and Larry Clark with a deeply personal narrative and visual sensibility, Roberson’s alternately melancholy and tender images are an explicit reminder that the “post-Katrina experience” is as much a collection of individual stories as a collective one.
Less successfully, David Armentor’s grid of tintype portraits of Tulane architecture students comes off more as an insular academic exercise than a meaningful addition to the overarching themes of the show. Its chronicling of the artist’s own experiment in learning a 19th century photographic process is perhaps more interesting in its own right.
And it’s too bad there wasn’t more wall space for L. Kasimu Harris’s “constructed reality” photographs of the artist’s friends and family; the two examples here hint at a rich variety of experiences that a larger selection of images would have been able to explicate more fully.
Of course, there isn’t a venue in town — or anywhere in the world, for that matter — big enough to encompass all of the Katrina narratives that have taken place over the past 10 years. That said, “The Rising” is a mostly well-considered focus on a handful of them.