PhotoNOLA: THINK POSITIVE
We find ourselves in momentous times. Big things are happening not only globally, but in New Orleans' art community. Fortunately, most of our momentous local art events are of the positive sort, with the successful inaugural Fringe Festival last month, the very large Prospect.1 international biennial continuing through mid-January, and now the New Orleans Photo Alliance's third annual PhotoNOLA expo through December. With work at more than eight museums and three dozen galleries and alternative spaces, it is clearly too big for a single review, so I'll indulge in a bit of trend spotting amid the sheer mass of offerings.
One genre that really stands out this year is street photography, not so much in the traditional sense of 20th century street photographers like Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, but as a rebirth of the practice of documenting communities and subcultures. What had been a primary focus of WPA-era photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee is back on the front burner again, as we see in several new expos and especially two different yet topically related shows at the McKenna Museum of African-American Art and the Photo Alliance Gallery.
Shootout: Lonely Crusade ... An Homage to Jamel Shabazz at the McKenna Museum features 25 emerging photographers inspired by the street portraiture of Brooklyn photographer Shabazz from the early days of hip-hop, first in magazines and later in books like A Time Before Crack. Shabazz was a master of extemporaneous eloquence, but in this show, because each photographer is represented by only one or two images, it's hard to get any real sense of their individual vision, causing many to come across as glorified snapshots. Even so, it's a gritty, gutsy show that works as an installation. It also is an interesting counterpoint to the Prospect.1 exhibition (upstairs) of more formally posed portraits by prominent photographer Malick Sidibé of Mali produced during the African nation's transitional years in the '60s and '70s.
At 527 Gallery on Julia Street, Tina Freeman's obliquely related color photographs of elaborate graffiti in a vast, abandoned industrial building evoke an Anselm Kiefer take on a street-punk dystopia. And Lori Waselchuk's Love and Concrete show at the Photo Alliance Gallery explores life along North Claiborne Avenue from Tremé to the Ninth Ward in a series of finely produced black-and-white prints. A Louisiana artist formerly based in South Africa, Waselchuk eloquently documents local backstreets that have much in common with those in Shootout, but with the benefit of brass bands. Around the corner, the Darkroom's GUNS 'n US expo of work by Kyle Cassidy, Donna De Cesare, Frank Relle and Andre Lambertson provides a powerfully poetic look at American gun culture, from those who equate guns with family values to others who don't like violence but pack heat anyway.
Relle also has a solo show, Inside Eleven Homes, at the GSL Gallery. It explores how people, especially New Orleanians, accumulate things for sentimental reasons and transform them into talismanic, rather than functional, objects. Lacking the drama of his previous projects, this one is pointedly prosaic and psychological in effect. More community and subculture documentation appears in the work of Kevin Kline and Eddie Lanieri at Home Space on St. Roch Avenue. Kline's street portraits of ordinary Orleanians appear less ordinary when mounted in old bottles, which lend them the buoyant aura of votive candles, or messages in bottles. And Lanieri takes a walk on the wild side with portraits of drag queens in various stages of dress, part of her series exploring gender and identity.
Part art, part sociology, these shows reflect a burgeoning interest in the meaning of community, even as they represent only a portion of this year's extensive PhotoNOLA offerings.