The New Orleans photographer highlights the tensions with live with in her new book "New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy."
Too often, photo books on New Orleans have a simple editorial stance. New Orleans is resilient. New Orleans is eccentric. New Orleans is noble. New Orleans is … you name it, and while each of those stances is right, each is only part of the story. That approach undersells the city’s rich and complicated nature. Photographer Cheryl Gerber’s New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy not only honors the often contradictory character of New Orleans but makes it the book’s central theme.
Gerber will sign copies of her book tonight at Octavia Books at 6 p.m., and she organizes her images in the book to present not just a photo as a stand-alone object but as part of a dialogue. She pairs and groups images based on visual echoes from image to image to highlight a tension. In one pairing, there’s an air of unease and dangerous ambiguity as two young African-American men with pitbulls look back at her camera, while a couple in green brocade costumes walk their similarly costumed dogs in Barkus. She invites us to think about the realities of these people’s lives—the instinctive wariness of the young men versus the easy frivolity of the Barkus participants; the financial realities that lead to two guys in plain white T-shirts next to the elaborate, well-crafted costumes; and the priorities that the realities of their lives lead to. No one looks at these photos and wonders about what’s in the costume closet of the two young men.
The photos’ stories are rarely similar, nor are they the same. On one page, we see two visions of fine dining—one at Galatoire’s and one at the Camelia Grill. On another, a woman in hair rollers is on a street corner with her kids, while below it is a photo of young women in a parade riffing on her look in 2012’s Krewe Delusion parade. Another couple capture important moments in two young women’s lives—one as she is crowned queen of Chalmette’s Tomato Festival in 2002 and one when her Spy Girl headdress is put in place. A photo of three young African-American women walking under the Claiborne Overpass makes the three older white ladies dressed for an Uptown garden party seem more like cast members of an American Downton Abbey that people who live in New Orleans today.
Gerber doesn’t disguise her own point of view. She’s not didactic, but it’s hard to look at the glamorous, busty portrait of Canal Street madame Jeanette Maier next to David Vitter giving a speech and think the pairing flatters Vitter. The exhausted look of defeat on the part of a young man wearing a flag T-shirt while waiting at a free health care clinic makes real the nature of the health care system led to “Obamacare.” The angry, older white woman in a similar T-shirt puts an ugly face on the protest against it. After countless photos of second lines and New Orleans’ street ceremonies, a pairing of photos of an all-white voodoo ceremony and a jazz funeral led by two white women in hip hats and summer dresses in the Marigny spark internal conversations about how and when we cross racial lines.
The title, New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy, may highlight strong race, gender and class tensions, but more directly, it speaks to the breadth of the human experience reflected in Gerber’s photos in the book. Her photos present New Orleans at play and at work, in good times and bad. She presents images of destruction and rebirth, and she doesn’t shy away from images of crime and violence. She was on hand when shots rang were fired during the Muses parade in 2004 and presents a photo of one of the shooting victims being attended to by those around her. Next to it is a woman being similarly helped after being tased and pepper-sprayed by a police office in 2007.
In the introduction, Gerber talks about her apprenticeship with photographer Michael P. Smith, and that relationship helps to explain one of the strengths of Gerber’s photographs. Like Smith, her best work presents people living their lives. She documents moments in New Orleans, and even when people are posing for her camera, she selects images that in some way make clear that the subject is a real person. More often though, she presents people interacting—hugging, fighting, dancing, playing, and eating. How they live together in the photos is a big part of the story that Gerber tells in the book. How the people in one photo live with the people in the next one is the other.