When you close your eyes and think of Hurricane Katrina, what do you see?
Everyone has their own visual memories of the storm that forever changed the physical and psychic landscapes of New Orleans.
But some images are more etched in our collective consciousness than others: an expanse of rooftops floating in a sea of floodwater, trucks and boats suspended in trees, desperate faces crowded inside the gloom of the Superdome and under the scorching sun outside the Convention Center.
Instead of focusing his lens solely on the dramatic sweep of destruction and suffering in those terrible days and weeks following the storm, photographer David Spielman chose to take a more subtle and longterm approach to documenting Katrina’s effect on the city.
In “The Katrina Decade: Images of an Altered City,” recently published by the Historic New Orleans Collection to mark the 10th anniversary of the storm, Spielman photographed dozens of examples of how Katrina transformed New Orleans over the past 10 years in ways both big and small.
The disappearance of a massive public housing complex in New Orleans East is documented alongside the ghostly traces of lost mailboxes on the wall of an anonymous building in Central City. While widely divergent in scale, both images convey aspects of the unprecedented demographic shifts that remain among Katrina’s more visible legacies.
Spielman explains that the project was less a sweeping investigation of how New Orleans was affected by the storm than one which quietly grew out of his own relationship with the city where he has lived for 40 years.
“I’m not a ‘hard news’ photographer,” said Spielman. “I was documenting what happened to my city on a very personal level, one on one. I didn’t limit my images to certain or clichéd areas, but seriously looked throughout the city for the benign beauty that sometimes appears when a disaster and nature collide.”
That understated approach is also something which sets Spielman’s work apart from many of the more dramatic images which appeared in the national media in the period following the storm.
“I want to provide a window into a much broader and more truthful view of what happened,” he said.
To that end, many of Spielman’s images are almost meditative, like the ones in which nature is seen gradually reclaiming structures in tangles of vines and grasses.
Others provide more of a jolt, like the photograph of a house in the Seventh Ward with an exterior wall torn away, transforming someone’s home into a kind of stage set open to both the elements and passers-by.
Still others document how abandoned buildings and derelict public spaces have become giant canvases for street artists in recent years, adding yet another layer to their history.
While all the photos in “The Katrina Decade” were taken over the last 10 years, many exhibit a sort of timelessness: in their direct simplicity, Spielman’s black-and-white compositions recall work documenting the Great Depression by American masters like Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange.
Spielman’s use of traditional film also contributes to the feel of his photos.
“I continue to work with film for most of my personal work,” he said. “I want the negative for the record.”
And there’s even a timeless quality to many of the subjects themselves: Anyone who was here before the storm knows that the city already had its share of foliage-covered abandoned buildings and other evidence of urban neglect long before Katrina became a household name.
In a way, that undermines the project’s goal of documenting specific changes in the city post-Katrina.
In a larger and more profound sense, however, it puts the storm within a wider and uniquely New Orleanian cycle of growth and decay: Katrina was simply the biggest (not to mention the most devastating) example of the ongoing tension between nature and the built environment that has characterized New Orleans from its beginnings.
Viewed from that perspective, “The Katrina Decade” isn’t just a record of how much New Orleans has been transformed over the past 10 years.
It’s a reminder that the only thing that has always remained constant in New Orleans is its propensity to change.