An exhibit of striking black-and-white photographs at Scott Edwards Gallery focuses on the precarious existence of a small island most New Orleanians have probably never heard of.
In the book that accompanies “Of the Rising Tide: A Photo Essay on the Vanishing Bayou Community of Isle de Jean Charles,” artist Melinda Rose describes her subject: “a fragile, finger-like Island, attached to the mainland by a narrow 2 mile-long road.”
Only 40 inhabitants remain on Isle de Jean Charles — the resilient and perhaps final descendants of a once-vibrant Choctaw-Chitimacha Indian population that has called the island home for over 100 years.
A decade after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and five years after the BP oil disaster that severely damaged the island’s fishing, Rose’s 20 black-and-white images reveal the small community’s questionable future as its barrier islands erode and its soil, once verdant and productive, is rendered infertile by saltwater intrusion.
Taken over a period of 10 years, beginning with the fall after Katrina, “Of the Rising Tide” offers a balance of portraits and landscapes, and often something between: residents framed alongside flagging constructions, amid an expiring topography punctuated by the barren branches of defunct oak and cypress trees.
Sharp lines and stark contrasts dominate. Some images are disturbing, like that of a young girl holding the empty rope under a dead branch, tied with other fraying ropes that once held swings.
In another, a white horse stands outside a derelict shack as it attempts to graze in a littered yard.
For those of us in cities, especially New Orleans, with its spike in real estate, tourists and film, Rose’s photographs serve as powerful reminders of a different Louisiana, one deeply entrenched in poverty, one that still struggles to recover from the hurricanes and one that confronts the immediate effects of our vanishing wetlands.
As a whole, Rose’s photographs force us to consider what we hold on to and what is worth saving, no matter the effort or cost.
However, it would be inaccurate to pigeonhole “Of the Rising Tide” as only bleak, and Rose makes a point to detach her photographs from what she terms “disaster porn.”
Several dreamy, even lovely images find their way into the collection, like that of a string of children flying kites along the new levee, their heads raised toward feathery clouds.
Children figure prominently into Rose’s work. “Kids know how to celebrate the temporary,” she said. “They also represent the hope for the island.”
In another image, one likely to speak to all Louisianians, an elegant older man in an immaculate cowboy hat and boots plays the guitar on a porch to the delight of a smiling woman in the doorway.
In all, no single emotion dominates Rose’s work. Instead, “Of the Rising Tide” captures the gamut of emotions that characterize the island’s residents: pride, loyalty, concern, fear, patience, joy.
Rose has considerable experience photographing and working with Native American children, including a stint teaching on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
Her interest in Louisiana’s native communities was sparked by the disturbing, at times denigrating conditions she saw on television in the weeks after Katrina.
A trained artist and teacher, she felt compelled to help. Using funds donated by friends and family, Rose drove from her home in Pennsylvania to volunteer.
Through a referral from Terrebonne Parish’s Indian Education Program, she found herself teaching art to kids in an interim elementary school in Dulac, and from there, to the even harder hit Isle de Jean Charles.
“It took a while to establish trust with the residents,” she said. At first, many did not want to speak to her and refused to be photographed.
In the decade since she began photographing the island, Rose has made numerous trips between Louisiana and the spate of distant states she’s called home.
Recently she made the choice to remain in New Orleans, partly in order to be closer to the people she’s photographed for years.
The choice to remain also is intimately tied to her artistic identity.
“New Orleans allows me to be eccentric like no other city I’ve lived in ... more than Portland or Boston or Philly. It allows me to be myself. ”
In doing so, Rose joins hundreds of other compassionate individuals who came to our state to help temporarily but who ultimately forged connections too strong to sever.
“Of the Rising Tide” is, in fact, two stories: the one in front of the camera and another, of the woman who held it.