NEW ORLEANS IN FOCUS
An Interview with Thomas Cole

By Fred Mushkat
© 2020

Fred Mushkat is a retired doctor, a collector of textile art and has authored one book soon to go to print dealing with flat woven animal trappings and bands from Persia. With a sharp eye as well as mind, in addtion to a deep interest in the visual arts. his participation in this interview was suggested by a colleague, John Howe (Washington, DC) who, too, manages three websites including -
https://raymondj.wordpress.com/, https://rjohnhowe.wordpress.com/ and https://survivingspring2020.wordpress.com/ where this presentation also appears.

With but a few days to contemplate the images, Fred composed these questions and offered them for a response.



ABOUT THE PHOTOGRAPHS
Some of these photographs appeared in "Standing In The Shadows - New Orleans in Focus" while others were taken subsequent to publication. This presentation was adapted from a PowerPoint presentation made in response to an invitaiont to participate in the Louisiana State Book Festival in Baton Rouge, LA. (November, 2019)



FM: There are quotes from a wide range of sources attached to the photos.
Tell us about why you chose this format and how you sourced the quotes.

Sourcing the quotes was easy, using the Internet.  Identifying themes in photographs and matching the quotes in an effort to allow them to be more accessible was challenging. 

I wanted people to understand that photography IS art, urging the viewer to think about each image, perhaps in a different light, than what a knee-jerk initial response might entail.

Nowadays, everyone is a photographer or thinks they are, visiting tourist spots in any given city with an iPhone in hand, taking pictures.  It is not that easy if one aspires to something more than a mere snapshot.   



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FM: Your sense of composition is exceptional! What is your background in photography?   


I have no ‘formal’ training in photography, art or anything else for that matter.  But when I left the States to travel overland to Asia long ago, I took a camera with me.. a real camera .. a Pentax, the type that I was told journalists used on dangerous missions where it might be irreparably damaged. I took photographs at that time, few of which were ever any good, but a handful have withstood the test of time.  

I’ve always had an interest in photography, particularly images from the past rather than contemporary images. When in India, I was always interested in old photos depicting the Raj, early views from the colonial period and bought those books. Additionally, I’ve written two articles for HALI, both featured on my website, featuring old photos of Asia taken by S.M. Dudin in Central Asia and Antoin Sevruguin in Persia and those photographers’ stories.



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FM: How did you go about the work? Were these random images you came upon or did the subjects participate in any way.


ALL the photographs I’ve taken in New Orleans are completely random, spontaneous shots, taken without the subject (if there is a person) ever noticing or aware of my presence.  

That particular shot to which you refer is an odd one… I was walking quickly through the French Quarter making my way home at the end of a day and noticed this person from the back and thought nothing of him. After passing him, I glanced back, noticed his pose, quickly turned and shot it. 

Upon reviewing the image later, I realized the synchronicity of his necktie and tattoos.  Not everything I shoot is something I am conscious of at the time, relying upon instincts and the unerring ability to shoot without thinking too much.  Overthinking can ruin the spontaneity of the moment.   


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FM: Why did you choose to shoot in B&W? What is it about us that makes B&W so captivating? Do we focus on the subject matter with greater intensity when we are not distracted with colors?


I shoot with a digital camera and all the images are initially color.  Upon reviewing them, some shots seem devoid of color anyway, but the graphics are compelling enough, so I desaturate the image and voilà… a B&W image appears that I find appealing.  It has happened that I’ve miscalculated some shots and reverted to the color image but only very occasionally, not often at all.

Black and white photography provides an understanding of the subject matter without the distraction of color.  Robert Frank is often quoted re: this phenomenon and Ted Grant’s observations, too, are relevant here, as this woman’s jacket was multi-colored but she is the focal point of the photograph, not the color of her clothing.


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FM: Let’s look at the woman in the photo. You purposely left her eyes out of the image. Can you discuss your approach to the composition of this image?


There is a protocol re: taking photographs of people – if you use it and they are recognizable without asking first for permission - legally they should sign a waiver.  Therefore, it can become important to maintain the subject’s anonymity.   Which is why many of the ‘people’ shots are cropped as such.  But with that said, cutting out her eyes accentuates the elegant bone structure of her face in the fading light and shadows.  It somehow worked in my mind’s eye and leaves the rest to the imagination.  I think it is important to allow the viewer to use their imagination – an engaging exercise

It was taken on the St Charles Ave streetcar at the end of the day, and the fading light of a late afternoon was barely sufficient.  With that said, I liked her dress and the heart shaped pendant hanging from her neck and the large earrings.  I had NO idea how the photo would turn out.  


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FM: This photo captures a brief moment of kinetic energy. Was this a chance photo? How did you decide about cropping the image?


This image was the result of fleeting moment in time; the word you used –‘ brief’ – hardly describes it.  I spotted these two people from afar, perhaps more than 120 feet away from across a street.  I quickly lifted the camera and shot it, instinctively realizing this embrace would not last.  Lowering the camera to quickly check the result, I glanced up and they had already parted ways… GONE.  

The exposure used to shoot it (I shoot in manual mode at all times) was not correct (I had no time to make an adjustment) and the quick motion to raise the camera was hardly complete when the shutter clicked.   It is not as ‘sharp’ an image as one could hope for and yes.. it is cropped as I was so far away. The street was non descript, two children lingered nearby (hers, I presume) but the synchronicity of patterning between the straps on her dress and the hand bag strung on her shoulder led me to believe it was worth considering as one to print in spite of the technical difficulties.  

In 2016, I was asked to exhibit photographs taken in India (SF Tribal Show, “Don’t Miss India”) with antique textiles from the subcontinent in the entryway of the Festival Pavilion at Fort Mason. There I met an older gentleman who had donated his entire photography collection to the Museum of Modern Art in SF.  He introduced himself, we started to chat, after which I grabbed my iPad to show him some of the New Orleans images.  He lingered over this one, saying he was primarily attracted to architectural shots, but thought this one transcended the genre of street photography, i.e. Vivian Maier among others.

 It may be one of the very best shots I’ve ever taken anywhere at anytime, but knowing how difficult it was to capture has inevitably influenced my thoughts.


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FM: In this photo the main element is the striped umbrella with its stark contrasts in B&W, with straight lines joining at crisp angles. In the background is a cinder block wall that catches the similarly sharp-edged shadow of the bus stop cover under which the woman is seated.

Other than the woman with umbrella and her backpack, everything else in the image is composed of straight lines. How much of this went into your decisions about composition?

Taken on the last day of one trip to the city, I found myself wandering down the street, a late afternoon walk with the sun nearing the horizon. I saw her at a distance from across the street, and given she was not looking at me, I had time to compose the shot, but truthfully, I never gave much thought to the use of straight lines with the more curvilinear shape of the umbrella. 



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FM: Along with other photos in your book, this image gives a sense of timelessness- it could have been shot any time in the past eighty years. Please comment on this.


That sense of timelessness to which you refer is accentuated in B&W.  In color, her dress is a shiny, satin like green material with silver edging as it was St. Patrick’s Day and she was celebrating.  A rare night shot, as I seldom wander after dark with a camera in my hands; the crime rate is just too great to take such risks very often.   That sense of timelessness is also accentuated by the legs of the man waiting to cross the street – his pressed, black slacks seem like a complete throw back, and leaving us to imagine how he might be dressed, perhaps with a 40’s style hat on his head?  


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FM: The quote from Edgar Allen Poe and the image are both about daydreaming. In recent years, researchers have determined that daydreaming is an important activity that often leads to meaningful insights as the mind is allowed to wander. Did daydreaming influence your photography?


Wandering the streets of New Orleans is an exercise in dreaming by day.  I meet people, see things and ultimately photo opportunities present themselves .In the afterword to the book (“Standing In The Shadows – New Orleans in Focus”) I address this phenomenon:

 “I walk up one street, then down another, for hours at a time in the course of a typical day, canvassing entire neighborhoods - scanning, searching, imagining – and, suddenly, with little to no warning, an opportunity for a photograph appears, literally out of thin air.   Often, it is merely a matter of fortuitous timing and, yes… a bit more, but to be in the correct place at exactly the right moment and, as time stops, the shutter button clicks and an image is captured.   All, except the sound of that shutter, is surely out of my control.  But is it just plain luck? Or the gift of discovery that New Orleans bestows upon those who seek? “

I was wandering, with no agenda, no appointments to keep or deadlines to meet, no expectations at all.  The aimlessness to my life there lends itself to responding to the spontaneity and synchronicity of events, the seemingly random opportunities for a photograph. 

Many photographers hit the streets with an agenda, or will actually wait at a particular spot for a pre-conceived opportunity but I prefer to wander and be solely in the present moment.


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FM: Similar to the image of a seated woman holding an umbrella, this image is an explosion of geometric forms in the floor, step and railing. What draws you to this theme?


How could I not be attracted to this geometry, having always been a fan of MC Escher!  But it is not only the eccentric patterning; it is a relic of an era from the past, as such tile work is no longer done.  These are old steps; the building was constructed in 1890 and I am guessing the tile work dates to the early 20th century.  The crumbling state suggests a long history and, curiously, neither long time residents nor other photographers have apparently noticed them.  Locals often ask where it was taken.  Located in a spot that never saw the direct sun, always remaining in the shade, it was the primary entrance to the brewery at one time. 

Given the tiles are black and white, shooting without color was an easy choice. The zig-zag nature of the steps is feature I appreciate in textile art as well – think old Baluch kilims from Sistan.


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FM: The chandeliers are the focus of the image but the most important part of the composition is the cat whose gaze draws the viewer to look upward. Tell us how this photo came about.


Taken in the early morning on Royal St in the French Quarter, known for the array of antique shops primarily located in a two or three block long stretch; the shop was closed.  No one was around, either walking on the sidewalk or within the shop, so I took my time.  This first of a series of three or four but as is often the case, the first shot was the most successful.  Scrawled or scratched into the glass is the word “antiques”, misspelled by homeless and apparently illiterate vagrants who used to sleep on that section of pavement.  The window has since been repaired, either replaced or sanded down.

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FM: In this photo with a theme of old tires, your sense of geometry is evident. Did your experience with textile art draw you to the attraction of geometric forms in city images like this one?

The geometry of tires is something to which I’ve always been attracted.  I once took a wonderful shot of a bicycle tire repair shop in India and since that time, have always kept my eyes open for similar scenes.  In New Orleans and throughout the South one finds shops owned by individuals rather than corporate chains, always unique and very personal.  Taken on my first trip to the city, I subsequently became aware of the fact no one had apparently ever shot it quite like this in the past.  Soon afterwards, the tires were removed and the opportunity vanished forever, as have many other shots that I was fortunate to capture.

I am unsure if it was my attraction to geometric form that led me to take this photo. It may have been the older building with hand made architectural details and the surreal size of the largest tire in the foreground.  With that said, there are other images in the book with graphic geometry directly influenced by an eye for textile art, mostly architectural details, including doors and window casings.


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FM: Your change to color photography was a bit of a visual jolt after contemplating B&W images. The initial images of writing on an ochre colored wall in India and a multicolored sign in the Upper 9th Ward (New Orleans) move the viewer from the grace of B&W into the world of color.

You subsequently quote Gauguin which speaks to this (“Color! What a deep and mysterious language, the language of dreams”).


Though the essence of a city lost in time might be best expressed in B&W, the colors in New Orleans reflect an oft documented connection to the Caribbean.

Choosing the covers of the book was an interesting exercise.  I wanted to invite those with a traditional view of art photography into my world, and feature a B&W photo on the front cover. Photography traditionalists apparently favor B&W over color. Surprisingly, the book designer, also a photographer who shoots exclusively in B&W, insisted she wanted a color photo gracing the front cover but I resisted.

As much as she appreciates the art of B&W, she thinks color photography may be my ultimate strength after spending nearly 20 years living in Asia.  The vastness of the subcontinent provides an endless subject source of which I’ve taken great advantage and enjoyed over the years. Those familiar with photos I’ve taken in India often comment on the similarity to the New Orleans shots.

Bottom line – I am a ‘color’ person, given my taste in textile art.



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FM: This composition features the juxtaposition of another image from India with a New Orleans composition. This second set prompts the question of why you chose to place together images from these widely separated areas. In these two images, there is a colorful background with subjects in the foreground.

What were your steps in composing these images? Were they just chance?


Both photos were merely chance, nothing posed or contrived.  I had passed by the shop front in Rameswaram, Tamil Nadu the previous day with the door closed and had no idea what the painted designs represented.  The next morning, I passed by on the way to the bazaar, saw this goat walking with the doors open, revealing what was inside – fans!  I quickly positioned myself and shot it. 

The New Orleans image was taken on a final morning walk through Tremé before departing later in the afternoon, a random shot with someone in front of the painted wall, conveniently standing with his back to me.   I rarely take shots of faces, even in India, as portraits are not what I want to look at on my walls, preferring the mystery of a faceless person.


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FM: Featured in this third set of complementary photographs is a composition of wheels. There are striking similarities between the painted wooden wagon wheel in India with the chrome and red hubcap in the Upper 9th Ward. The composition of both speaks, again to your interest in the geometry of subject material.

I prefer details.  The sub-title of the book – New Orleans in Focus – speaks to that.  Upon exhibiting photographs in New Orleans, people (mostly other photographers) asked the gallery owner, “How does he see these things?”   I laughed when informed of those encounters as there is no reasoning involved; it is what I see.

 Removing the setting surrounding a detail contributes to that sense of timelessness as well and I am one to enjoy being lost in time, as per my work with antique textile art and images from the past, be it western subject matter or glimpses of Asia.  

 Re: geometry – undoubtedly my eye for textile art influences how I view the world, always in search of salient details upon which to focus.


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FM: This image is the only one in this series that has a quote from you. It reminds me of the concept of daydreaming that we discussed earlier and of a quote of yours that I have always associated with your work in textiles: “It’s all about the color.” Please discuss. The Gauguin quote I mentioned speaks to color and dreams. This quote covers both the idea of color and dreaming, which seem to be two of your dominant themes.


If the designer had convinced me to feature color on the book cover, I would have chosen this photograph.  The quote is lifted from a foreword I composed and seemed best to describe this elegant architectural detail.  The shape of that shadow, if seen in textile art, would be likened to that of an animal head.  The graceful lines and textured surface caught my attention, as did the color.  This image is not cropped; it appears exactly as I took it. 

Historians, documentarians, museum curators as well as born-and-raised New Orleanians marvel at how mere details of their city reveal so much about who they really are as opposed to how the world at large generally views the city and its people.  

Historically, New Orleans has been an inspiration for writers, including William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams to name two and has inspired me to create prose I’ve never considered possible. Perhaps it is that lyrical quality of writing that recalls that theme of dreaming in your mind?


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FM: The da Vinci quote refers to the importance of shadows in art. In this image, the shadows of the wrought iron railing share equal value with the railing itself. Was this your intention?


Taken at the end of a day while waiting for a crawfish boil on the street to complete our order, I decided to wander.  The light was perfect and I stumbled across this scene.  Again.. I just took the photograph without giving it a second thought.  Upon actually printing the image did I see the illusion of three-dimensional art, accounting for the title as it appears in the book – 3D Classic.   

Ostensibly a cliché image as everyone takes photographs of the wrought iron lace that drapes buildings throughout the French Quarter and elsewhere.   But I have yet to see one achieve this inescapable quality of three dimensions, accentuated by the partially open light blue door on the balcony.  It was an accident; I could not imagine the result.


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FM: The Mondrian quote and the image link together to remind the viewer that the partial image of a door, metal railing, painted concrete and a strong shadow is much like a Mondrian composition. These themes are continued in the image below it.

The shadow resembles fertility imagery seen in Central Asian rugs – a “kotchanak”.  The colorful curls of the iron and carving on the house (and of course, the colors) caught my eye.  Curiously the owner came out as I was evaluating how to take a shot and I introduced myself.  She started to do the same, but then I recognized her – Amanda Shaw, a “fiddle” player in town.  I have since offered her a copy, but with no response. The Mondrian quote seemed appropriate, as I have often referred to the relationship of color and space within the context of textile art.

The second photo (below) was something I spotted at a distance, took the shot and cropped it down to what you see.  The screen door with the raised red grating is three dimensional as well, provoking some to assume the print was doctored, painted to give the appearance of depth.  I had no idea how it would print up and was taken aback at the results. 

Few would understand how old that screen is, but a friend in town who installed such doors as a youth understood immediately; they don’t make screen doors like this anymore!


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FM: New Orleans is the birthplace of jazz and Louis Armstrong whose cornet and trumpet artistry is unmatched. Photographs with a musical theme in New Orleans are usually of street performers but you chose this image of a painted glass door.


I never take photographs of people performing (but occasionally their shoes!). It is too easy and everyone does it and better than I ever would, so why bother?  I know the owner of this bar, a popular performer in town -Kermit Ruffins.  When planning the book, I solicited him to write a foreword but he declined, saying he has no idea how to write.  

One afternoon, I stopped by to say hello and standing around in the darkened bar with no people around, I focused on the light coming through the glass door and took this shot.  Oddly enough, people had no idea where it was taken as apparently few ever took notice of the door from inside, more often focused on the music or their drinking companions?  But everyone knows what it looks like from the street!


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FM: Although the background consists of brightly colored strips, the man in the foreground is completely shadowed. In this image, you blend color photography with B&W. Please elaborate.


Taken in Tremé at the Tuba Fats Park adjacent to the Candlelight Lounge, I was across the street and noticed this fellow walking in the shadows cast by a tree and thought to capture the image.  I saw him in a darkened profile against the brightly lit and color background, a painted fence.   

Titled “Profiling” in the book, it is easy to guess who he might be, his possible vocation and race.  We often jump to conclusions about things, and thought to raise that question, a bit of contemporary social commentary.


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FM: The photo seems to show a door, given the handle on the right. The surface in covered with blocks of wood in many shapes and colors. The composition includes heavy shadowing. Please discuss.


An artisan in Tremé makes these gates and doors, for himself and for sale to others.  This was his gate, prior to gaining more renown in town.  Many artists live in New Orleans, with a distinct style.  Since this photograph was taken, he has added more objects to the composition, including etched slogans and portraits of famous people, usually civil rights leaders, etc.  Somehow the simplicity as it appears in this photograph is more pleasing to my eye than the more evolved state in which it may be viewed today.

I left a note with his kids whom I met one day in front of the house, with my phone number and email address but received no response.  Upon discovering the image online, he asked me about it and whether I had the ‘right’ to reproduce it.  I assured him I had tried to make contact well before publication and offered him a book as compensation.  He agreed, all was well and I am sure he was pleased how the photo was titled – “Mosaic Master”.


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FM: This deceptively simple scene is another example of color and composition.

For no particular reason this photograph never appeared in the book, but continues to be a favorite among New Orleanians.  Located close to my home in the 7th Ward, I was passing by early one morning and saw the play of light and shadow on this colorful porch.  I am guessing it is appeals to New Orleanians as it depicts a tranquil presence and colorful environs characteristic of the older neighborhoods.  I’ve always liked it in spite (or because?) of its simplicity.


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FM: The red flower against a forest green wall with yellow trim is an exercise in color contrast. This seems to be a favorite theme in your color photography.

Color, color, color… whatever it takes to get someone’s attention!  It, too, never made it into the book but might be featured in a second publication, if and when that ever happens.   Taken in the early morning of a final day in the city, I found myself walking through the 7th Ward towards home and noticed this brilliant red flower contrasted with the brilliant yellow and green house.  It seemed like a good idea at the time.


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This is the first of two images in this series with political undertones, in this example a window and wall reminiscent of the American flag. Additionally, the shadow of a wrought iron door takes center stage.

What were your thoughts as you composed this image?


One of my favorite shots, as people who know me realize I harbor strong opinions on politics and more.  It was completely intentional, as I knew what I was looking at in terms of composition and possible interpretation.

Titled “Behind Bars”, I chose, for the sake of publication, not to preface the title with “America”.   I thought, why bother alienating people who may believe so strongly in the present occupation of the Oval Office?  Twain sums up the feelings of many quite perfectly. 

The building is actually a barbershop in the 7th Ward.  Oddly enough, Richard McCabe, the curator of art at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, featured a shot of the entire building on his Facebook page last year celebrating July 4th.  I chose this detail instead to mark that date.


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FM: Muhammad Ali discusses light and dark, both of which are amply represented in this image. The most striking aspect of the image is the rooster walking past a graffiti fence. The idea of a fowl, connoting farm life, with a cityscape is as striking as light and shadow

Roosters and chickens are often found wandering the streets of my neighborhood, providing a glimpse of what life was like in the past.  While the neighborhoods are mostly laid out on a strict grid of streets intersecting each other at right angles, they are often severely rutted, almost dirt tracts, reminiscent of how the city must have appeared a century or more ago.  While hell on cars (I can drive no more than 10 mph on my own street), I somehow enjoy these more rustic surroundings.

Taken on a busy thoroughfare on the edge of the Upper 9th Ward, I was across the street with early morning, relatively light but steady, vehicular traffic moving in both directions.   I saw the rooster trotting down that sidewalk, got down on one knee hoping for a sufficient break in the traffic to capture a shot.  Among a number of failed attempts to do so, this was the only successful one.  It could not have been better planned with the “Past Behind Me” directly in front and I felt fortunate to capture it.  The quote, too, seemed appropriate given my admiration for Muhammed Ali -The Greatest!


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FM: Your take on the RCA dog listening to “his master’s voice” is a stark contrast to that famous image. Here the dog stares straight at the lens and demands the viewer’s attention.


I grew up listening to Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lewis and others; my parents owned a record store in 1956 and I am very familiar with the RCA record label for which Elvis recorded subsequent to his days with Sun Records.

When I spotted this photo opportunity, I quietly positioned myself at a distance, not wishing to disturb the dog.  But instantly (or seemingly so), he perked up his ears and turned to look at me.  Realizing I did not pose a threat, his ears went down, his pose more relaxed.  I lingered and took a few more shots but as is often the case, the first one was the best.


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FM: The image of the horizontally striped socks is a a reference to the Wizard of Oz and the quote by Marc Platt is about the successful play “Wicked”.

Did these two stories influence your decisions about this photograph?

I was unaware of the Platt quote or the successful play, “Wicked”.  I liked her socks, legs and shoes, and only later did I realize everyone associated it with the Wizard of Oz, and the wicked witch of the west.  It was taken the same night as another image (the girl celebrating St. Patrick’s Day on the corner marked “Esplanade”), a rare night excursion and a fruitful one as both images made it into the book, with this one gracing the back cover!  So often I am not thinking of anything when capturing an image; for want of a better way to describe it, I am merely spacing out and shooting what visually grabs my attention.

 


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FM: The well-trodden painted smile in front of a doorway has a prominent clump of grass breaking through the sidewalk, almost as if it is a bit of facial hair below the lower lip. Deep shadows are once again at play. The “W” in “Welcome” is nearly worn away and it appears the “E” at the end of the word was never painted on the concrete. These facets make this an inviting but mysterious image. To me, this image captures two facets of New Orleans that that do not appear in the other images in this series.


The photograph was taken subsequent to release of the book and has never been printed. 

The graphic quality may not appear in other images, but the message does as New Orleans is a welcoming city; the residents (at least in the poorer areas of town) are, for the most part, an easy going, hospitable group of people.  The ‘E’ was there at one point as it is the entryway to an ice cream shop in town and seen much foot traffic over the years.  

Taken out of the context where it is actually located contributes to that element of ‘mystery’ to which you refer but that is how it is with visually interesting details removed from the mundane surroundings.


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FM: The series ends on an upbeat note. It is an unusual composition of a flowering plant in a large clay pot atop two yellow and orange painted tires. In the background, there is a line of weeds beneath a painted fence. Graffiti on the fence is dominated by “Be happy!!”

Do you consider this an essential aspect of the New Orleans persona
?

This photograph depicts a community park, established to nurture the spirit of kids in an under privileged neighborhood.  Ridden with drug dealers and gunshots occasionally ringing out late at night, residents wanted to convey a positive message to their children. 

Now, it is in disarray, the fence first fell into disrepair and finally disappeared altogether, the flowerpot lies fallow, and the message has been lost - a tragedy that speaks to the hardships of life in a poorer down trodden neighborhood presently in the throes of gentrification as outsiders/Yankees arrive and buy properties.

It is a message of hope, an essential aspect of life in New Orleans.  How else could they have survived Katrina and continue to carry on as they have?