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Storm Shuttered 

It's the big attraction, no doubt about it. The New Orleans Museum of Art's photo exhibition, Katrina Exposed, may not be a blockbuster in the usual sense -- there are no long lines or ticket scalpers -- but it is definitely an object of popular fascination. That much was obvious on a recent Sunday just by the number of cars parked up and down Lelong Avenue, the arboreal artery leading up to the museum entrance. Once inside, it was equally obvious where the action was.

And wasn't. Although the museum's more scholarly Ansel Adams expo sits adjacent to and even connects with the Katrina show, much of it seems a little dry (no pun intended) next to the sheer blood and guts intrigue of the photos of the hurricane and its aftermath. A huge undertaking involving some 700 images arranged salon style, up and down the walls, Katrina is a visually crowded exhibit that causes people to stare and gawk at what by now might seem too familiar, yet somehow still holds our attention a full year after the fact. Part wailing wall and part wonder wall, it's a show that reveals nature as a master surrealist in images of cars in trees, trees on houses and houses resting on cars. Rather than limit it to the work of professional photojournalists, which might have ensured a more consistent presentation, curator Steve Maklansky accepted a wide range of images from a variety of pros, amateurs, artists and others, ensuring a collective perspective that was as broadly based as the people affected by the storm. Their stylistic differences covered the waterfront, so to speak.

Among the news pros, globetrotting British war photographer-turned-New Orleans-based photojournalist Charley Varley was everywhere during and after the storm, including a decisive moment at the Hyatt with the mayor and his entourage when the wind ripped the windows out. Specializing in the straight-up grimness that news agencies favor, Varley excels at dramatic depictions of death and destruction, tearful children and stranded, shell-shocked refugees, but he punctuates it with lighter scenes of dogs being rescued from the floodwaters and the tentative return of street parades a few months later. Other photo pros include the Magnum agency's Thomas Dworzak, whose views of stranded stragglers and gun-toting vigilantes evoke life in any number of global hot spots, and whose shot of National Guardsmen confronting a suspected looter recalls Cornell Capa's and Cartier-Bresson's pictures of accused French collaborators in the waning days of World War II.

Another image by New York Times photographer Vincent Laforet depicts a New Orleans skyline darkened by clouds of billowing black smoke from one of those massive, mysterious fires that erupted after the storm, a sooty pall that nearly obscures the sunset dimly reflected in the flooded streets below. Equally iconic is an image by Associated Press photographer Eric Gay of a stranded elderly black lady wearing the flag as a shawl. Throw in some emblematic images of people stranded on roofs, of corpses, floating, abandoned -- or ceremonially comported, such as the body on Jackson Avenue covered with a shroud marked with the words: "Here lies Vera. God help us" -- and we are left with a kind of news agency vision of an American apocalypse. While extraordinarily forceful, what makes this Katrina show such an engaging spectacle is the colorful counterpoint, the contrasting mix of more whimsical works by artists and others.

Interspersed with the floating corpses and abandoned bodies are pictures of the tiniest victims, toys or dolls floating in the floodwaters, left where they were dropped by fleeing children, or were washed from inundated homes, and we are left with a sense of calamity in miniature that parallels the disasters of the larger, adult world. A tapestry of flooded houses stitched together in quiltlike geometric patterns suggests fragments of lives stitched together into a bizarre new reality, and everywhere there is this sense -- of tragedy, yes -- but also of wonder. While the whimsical works of artists may not qualify as reportage in the strict sense, they do accurately reflect the multi-layered nature of the experience -- and the human response that takes whatever life has to offer and transforms it into a creative new narrative of continuity. Life goes on.

click to enlarge Eric Gay's photo of a stranded evacuee wearing the flag as a - shawl conveys a sense of a news agency view of an - American apocalypse.
  • Eric Gay's photo of a stranded evacuee wearing the flag as a shawl conveys a sense of a news agency view of an American apocalypse.
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Speaking of Through Sept. 17, Katrina Exposed : Photographs By Local, National And International Artists

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