Tag Archives: New Orleans

Shame: An Argument for
Preserving “Those” Monuments

Two of the Clark Mills equestrian statues of Andrew Jackson, Lafayette Park, Washington, DC (left) and Jackson Square, New Orleans (right); photos: Leann Davis Alspaugh

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On July 4, around 8 am, the French Quarter was wild with heat. I walked up St. Peter’s and took a left on Bourbon, where street cleaners hosed off the previous evening’s bacchanalia of regret. At Canal, I went left and by the time I reached St. Charles my glasses were fogged with humidity. I crossed Poydras and went to Camp Street. From there, I went right and my pulse quickened, anticipating the famous absence I’d traveled here to witness. I was making this walk well after the press had left town and well before white supremacists terrorized Charlottesville, Virginia, to experience the empty plinth where a statue of General Robert E. Lee once stood.

But then my geography got rusty. I was expecting to see the conspicuous display of emptiness about two blocks straight ahead. My body tensed in anticipation. But crossing Andrew Higgins Street, I looked right to make sure all was clear, and it was in that nanosecond that I unexpectedly got a direct view of the nothingness that was indeed something and—a reaction I don’t typically have—I gasped.

The image moved me: Robert E. Lee, that icon of the Confederacy, that bronze statuesque symbol that once lorded several stories over New Orleans, was, after 132 years, gone, relegated (for now) to municipal storage. And there I stood, a white person who, by virtue of my whiteness, benefits daily from the legacy of slavery, and took in this poignantly empty column, feeling the power history in a way I’d never before felt it.

Weeks earlier, with rare eloquence, Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans, drove home the emotion in a remarkable speech. The Times-Picayune called it “one of the most honest speeches on race” delivered by “a white southern politician.” Landrieu, in the aftermath of the statue’s removal from Lee Circle, explained to a city that’s 62 percent black how “These statues are not just stone and metal. They are not just innocent remembrances of a benign history. These monuments purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for.” A lot of people said it and I agreed with them—Amen.

And so there it was: a seamless convergence of media, morality, and message. The removal of a city’s offensive Confederate-themed statues, a speech that will be anthologized, the humility of a public figure, a frank look at the reality of racism, and now this eerie lone column, a stark and unifying exclamation point on a Southern landscape. And yet, in spite of myself, something in my gut told me that General Lee should have stayed.

The Problem with Jackson

Before leaving the French Quarter for Lee Circle, I spent a few moments in Jackson Square contemplating the lone statue of Andrew Jackson. As an historian, I knew Jackson fairly well. I knew he was a slaveholder. I knew he was a man who built his identity around killing Indians. I knew that his reputation as an ethnic cleanser helped get him ousted from the twenty-dollar bill.

Knowing all this, I wondered how this swaggering crusader for racial purity still sat lionized atop his rearing horse, tipping his hat to the city he saved at the Battle of New Orleans, the city that, as it purged its obvious symbols of the Confederacy, refused—as Landrieu did—to include in that purge a figure who helped make the Confederacy possible.

There’s no question that removing a Confederate era statue—a monument put in place to remind blacks that they would never have equal rights—is a symbolic expression of justice. My own reaction to Lee’s absence proved it. But the persistence of Jackson led me to realize something was wrong. It made me wonder if there might be something too easy in the symbolism of Lee’s removal, an ease that exonerated white progressives from doing something far more challenging and consequential for the cause of racial justice than tearing down statues, spitting on them, and sending out virtue signals on Instagram.

After my Jackson-to-Lee walk, I met with Richard Marksbury at a coffee shop near Tulane University. Marksbury, sixty-six and white, is a cultural anthropologist who directs the university’s Asian Studies Program. Of all the arguments marshaled against the statue removals, Marksbury’s stood out for their rigor and manner in which he delivered them—not as a caveat-generating academic, but as an activist affiliated with the all-volunteer Monumental Task Committee, a group founded in 1989 to “restore, repair, and forever maintain all the monuments located in the city.”

Marksbury’s case was this: The white citizenry of New Orleans agreed in 1884 to celebrate Robert E. Lee by erecting a monument to his legacy. Even if that choice was, in Landrieu’s words, on “the wrong side of history and humanity,” it was made without ambiguity by racists interested in furthering the myth of the lost cause. That fact alone—history left the monument there as a kind of primary source for us to interpret—legitimates its right to stay put. “If something is there for 130 years,” Marksbury said, “it’s just part of the landscape.”

I thought, no—not valid. The notion that a memorial should be preserved because, at some point in time, an empowered group of citizens deemed an evil ideology worthy of memorializing only seems reasonable if history is apolitical, unemotional, and entirely relegated to the past. But history is none of those things. Infused in the heated politics of daily life, history is what left me in shock in the shadow of Lee’s empty pedestal. History is what turned Charlottesville into a war zone. History burns those who get close.

But Marksbury, if only in an indirect way, had a point. He directed my attention to Audubon Park. There, he explained, “you will find a statue of the Buffalo Soldiers.” He said, “Do you know what those soldiers did to the Native Americans? They mutilated them. So, what about the feelings of Native Americans? If you’re going to take down Robert E. Lee, you’ve got to take down the Buffalo Soldiers.”

And as for Jackson, he noted that when Take ’Em Down Nola—the organization dedicated to removing New Orleans’s racially offensive monuments—demonstrated to have Jackson removed, they were absolutely right to do so. “Landrieu,” he said, “could have appealed to the emotions of the Native American community.” But he “remained silent.” It was a silence that kept ringing in my ears.

Sloppy History

Marksbury’s argument does not condemn the removal of Confederate-themed monuments. It condemns inconsistency. One can argue that the NOLA removals were history in the making and that, in time, the moral logic underscoring that approach would be equally applied to other symbols of racism—including Andrew Jackson and many others. That would be good (if extremely ambitious) history. But that’s not what was happening in New Orleans. The mayor and city council removed Lee and other confederates while explicitly refusing to touch the image of Jackson. It was sloppy history.

Politicians can get away with that. But professional historians cannot. When I exchanged emails with Victoria Bynum, author of several books on the myth of the Lost Cause as well as The Free State of Jones: Mississippi’s Longest Civil War (which inspired a 2016 Hollywood movie), she was adamant that the public expression of history be scrupulously accurate and consistent. “I so fervently want the true history of the Civil War understood at the popular level,” she wrote. “And it saddens me that so many Americans, and not just Southerners, actually believe that the Civil War was not caused by slavery.”

Of course, she’s right. But was removing statues of confederate generals the right way to achieve historical accuracy in public space? (Bynum, for the record suggested the monuments go into a museum.) Again, it could be. If we honestly intended to take the logic underscoring Lee’s removal to the necessary extreme then we might get on with the massive project of de-anthologizing the public landscape of all racist vestiges. Or, acknowledging the difficulty of consistency on this point, we might instead rethink the logic behind statue removals altogether.

From the Bottom Up

One transformation that has touched the entire historical profession over the past two generations is the idea that we should do history “from the bottom up.” What kind of history was done in New Orleans when the statues came down? In a sense, it was top down. You had a white man who, largely through his own initiative and the power of his position as mayor, swept historical markers from their pedestals. Landrieu’s speech was grand. But shouldn’t skepticism be stoked when a May 26, 2017, editorial predicts that “as Abraham Lincoln’s remarkable 1860 Cooper Union Speech about slavery propelled the little-known Illinois lawyer toward the Republican Party’s presidential nomination, so might Landrieu’s Gallier Hall speech prompt Democrats to give the Louisiana mayor a closer look”? We should ask: Who tangibly benefits when Lee goes missing and General Jackson—of the Battle of New Orleans fame—stays put?

Three other Confederate monuments also came down around the time of the Lee statue removal, leading some lesser-known citizens suggested a bottom up approach. News reports called their behavior criminal acts of vandalism. But one might more charitably label them interpretations of public history made by the disenfranchised. At the base of the Robert E. Lee monument, someone spray-painted the phrase “white supremacy is a LIE” in sharp black letters. There we go, I thought.

Such a brutally accurate interpretation—obviously illegal and, if allowed to run amok, pointless—was in its singularity of expression and incisive moral commentary a far greater challenge to the myth of the Lost Cause than the nothingness that now rests on the pedestal. Plus, the motives in this case were clear—to bring truth to the monument—and nobody’s political prospects were improved in the process.

With that tag, truth spoke to power because the embarrassing emblem of that horrible power remained in place to be witnessed and interpreted. Certainly, we can take a cue from the vandals and find ways to demonize these relics with appropriate levels of scorn—new explanatory plaques come to mind—rather than sending them crashing once and for all to the pavement. And—more to the point—certainly there could be greater benefits for racial justice and historical understanding by engaging in ongoing interpretations of what these monuments mean in the here and now.

Forgetting How to Feel Shame

While taking an Uber car in New Orleans, I passed several streets named after slaveholders (or those who condoned slaveholding)—Henry Clay, Zachary Taylor, Thomas Jefferson, Napoleon, Washington. Prompted by this observation, I asked my driver, an African American business owner in his forties, what he thought about the statue removals. He paused and looked at me hard in the rearview mirror. “Taking those statues down was a bad idea because they reminded white people what was done to us.” Then he added: “We are not educated.”

It took me a moment to realize what he meant by “we” and “educated,” but what he was saying was that white people don’t know how to feel shame. We haven’t been taught how to confront the troubled history and legacy of slavery in a way that demands our sustained discomfort and puts us at risk in public space. True, by wishing the statues away, we justifiably honor the crushed feelings African Americans experience when living amidst monuments that once honored slavery. But less justifiably, by wishing these statues away we also ease the guilt of progressive whites who, for altogether different reasons, also hate looking up to Lee, Jackson, and, dare one say it, Mr. Jefferson.

Don’t worry about me, my Uber driver was saying. Worry about you. He wanted, in essence, whites to swallow a healthy dose of shame, and to bring that struggle to bear on our thinking about racial justice. However paradoxically, the white supremacist thugs who marched through Charlottesville only intensified the imperative. They further demanded that the rest of us, as we witness (and die from) their violent hatred, connect the awful racism of the past to that of the present through a bridge paved with shame, the kind of shame that, from the bottom up, can overwhelm the utter lack of it that currently swaggers at the top of American politics.

If that becomes the goal we choose to pursue with our remaining Confederacy monuments—and I cannot think of a better way to use public history—then we might take a note from the New Orleans vandals and begin to add to, rather than subtract from, the existing textual landscape.

That is exactly what the civil rights lawyer, MacArthur Foundation fellow, and founder of the Equal Justice Institute (EJI), Bryan Stevenson, is doing in Montgomery, Alabama. EJI marked Montgomery with a series of historical plaques acknowledging the warehouses used in the city’s slave trade. This effort, in addition to EJI’s current project to build a national memorial dedicated to lynching victims, defies the city’s antiquated markers to the Confederacy (of which there are more than fifty). And what do you think Stevenson wants whites to feel when staring at lists of the lynched? Not a sense of ease. Not a sense of relief.

Before justice and history merge on the landscape, they will first have to merge in our hearts. Without shame, this cannot happen. Taking on shame is a process that will inevitably ask whites not only to feel that emotion, but also to live in it, and to harness it for the cause of righteousness. And if that’s what we’re in for, if that’s what must happen for us to inch toward true racial reconciliation, then moving Confederate monuments out of sight becomes less an act of racial justice than yet another expression of the same white privilege that got us into this mess to begin with.

James McWilliams is a professor of history at Texas State University and the author of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America and Just Food: Where Locavores Get It Wrong and How We Can Truly Eat Responsibly.

 

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Big Easy Ink

Maud Wagner, circus performer and one of the first female tattoo artists, around 1911.

Maud Wagner, circus performer and one of the first female tattoo artists, around 1911.

The tourist season in New Orleans is gearing up. The sounds of music fill the French Quarter: I can hear a virtuosic African bass harp player, the remarkable duo Tanya and Dorise, and an ersatz bluegrass band. (“I’m wearing my tramp pants,” I heard the fiddle player say during a break to someone on the other end of his smartphone.) A mime covered in silver paint does the moonwalk in front of the Café du Monde. One enterprising fellow on Royal Street has a Transformers-style act, ingeniously switching back and forth between impersonating a motorized car and an action toy.

Having spent recent weeks researching tattoo photographs for our upcoming summer issue, “The Body in Question,” I was keen to see how the expanding craze for self-expression would play out in the Big Easy. I had barely set foot in Jackson Square when I noticed the prevalence of tattooed tourists, and it brought to mind Christine Rosen’s forthcoming THR essay, which cites a poll that found that one in five Americans has a tattoo. Rosen also notes that 86 percent of respondents said they had no regrets about “getting inked.”

Tattoos, as Rosen explains, have occupied just about every possible cultural position. They have been identified with criminals, but also with kings. Today, they have become so mainstream that those who are heavily tattooed scorn those with small butterflies or dolphins as unserious and ordinary. The heavily tattooed form communities and attend conventions, send letters to the editors of tattoo magazines, and bond over shared imagery from their “tattoo collections,” a phrase used by Beverly Yuen Thompson in her 2015 book Covered in Ink: Tattoos, Women, and the Politics of the Body. Thompson also describes a number of issues facing the modern tattooed woman such as the lack of acceptance of female tattoo artists, workplace bias, normative concepts of gender and beauty, and discrimination faced by tattooed moms. Herself heavily tattooed, Thompson is particularly perturbed by the presumptuous and often rude reactions of strangers to her appearance. The fact that tattooing now has its own ethnographies and etiquette skews its outlaw aura toward something decidedly more bourgeois.

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A Connoisseur of Vanishing Acts: An Interview With John Rosenthal

The Hedgehog Review: Our forthcoming fall issue includes a photo essay with the work of, among others, American photographer John Rosenthal. John, please describe your background and how you came to photography.

John Rosenthal (JR): My route to photography was so circuitous I can hardly follow it. In my twenties, I taught literature at the University of North Carolina–Greensboro and UNC–Chapel Hill and, during the summers, acted in stock theaters. In 1970, after the Kent State killings, I was one of the leaders of the strike that closed down the university. To the administration, I became a persona non grata, and, in the fall, I was told that my lectures were being monitored. Who needed it? So I quit.

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

Coney Island, New York, 1974; courtesy of the artist

My then-wife and I moved to Rethymnon, Crete, where I borrowed a camera and began to photograph everything—the people, the children, the rocks, the sheep, the fog over the Mediterranean. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I loved it. When we returned to America, I bought a Pentax and, when it got dark, I set up a darkroom in my kitchen. One night, I watched a new photograph rising up out of the developer. It was a photograph of two men, one of them shirtless, standing in front of a small fire on the beach at Coney Island (left). Behind them, in the distance, a ferris wheel and roller-coaster seemed to drift in the mist. I thought, okay, this is good, call yourself a photographer.

 

THR: Are there any photographers whose work has made a deep impact on you? Have you encountered any particular mentors or teachers?

JR: Literature brought me to photography, but not right away. I had to learn somewhere that what you see isn’t all there is, and I learned it by reading. Even though Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! is a book, it created in my mind images that were brighter and more distilled than anything my eyes could see. But more specifically, in the late 1960s, my late friend and mentor, Jean Morrison, a poet, photographer, and teacher, sat me down and said he wanted to show me something. Then he handed me a book of Cartier-Bresson’s photographs, saying “Don’t look fast. Don’t assume you know what you’re looking at. They’re complicated.” I knew nothing about the art of photography. I’d never heard of Henri Cartier-Bresson or Robert Frank or Diane Arbus. Probably, I’d seen Ansel Adams’s photographs of Yosemite, but I didn’t care about them.

Now, I found myself looking at a 1938 black-and-white photograph [Cartier-Bresson’s On the Banks of the Marne] of two plump, middle-aged couples sitting on the bank of the Marne, enjoying a picnic. Dirty plates, an empty bottle of wine, newspapers, a picnic basket, forks. In the river, two boats were tethered to the shore by two poles. In one of the boats, three fishing rods were propped up, dangling their lines in the river. A woman in a skirt and slip was chewing on chicken bone. One of the men, in suspenders, was refilling his wine glass, his face with its Charlie Chaplin moustache turned sideways to the camera. The other three were turned away from the camera, facing the river. The photograph’s composition was as relaxed as the picnic, but it managed to convey a culture, a society, a landscape, and, above all, the texture of friendship. The photograph, which was both an inward and outward fact, both a metaphor and itself, was a poetic act of consciousness. That year I learned to read the complex language of a photograph, and that opened up Robert Frank’s America, Diane Arbus’s creepy wonderment, and the beautiful elusiveness of Eugène Atget.

 

THR: You have said, “To be a photographer is to be a connoisseur of vanishing acts.” Please say a little more about this evocative statement.

JR: Well, when I first began to photograph in lower Manhattan, I found myself drawn to things like bottles of seltzer water stacked in wooden crates, dusty bread-shop windows, Ukrainian men playing backgammon in Tompkins Square, movie marquees on 42nd Street, a ship in the window of an Italian seamen’s club on Mulberry Street. There was nothing self-conscious or intentionally documentary about these photographs. They were the city I’d fallen in love with. To me, New York’s dynamic urban beauty was equal to the views at any number of litter-free national parks.

Then the city sanitized itself, real-estate prices soared, and a lot of New York disappeared to make room for the yuppies. Only then did I realize that what I’d been photographing was the imperiled city.

It turned out, to my surprise, that those early photographs are now considered documents. New York the way it used to be. Unlike Ansel Adams’s High Sierra mountains, which will stay put for a very long time, my photographs of New York in the 1970s deal almost exclusively with landscapes and moods that have largely vanished.

 

THR: Whether deliberate or unintentional, a photograph almost always conveys a particular story or connotation of a subject. What are your views on the ethics of photography?

JR: Photographing people, strangers especially, can be a very tricky thing to do, ethically tricky, even if it’s now a universal cellphone activity. And photographing pre-adolescent children as if they were seducing the camera brings the problem to a darker level. I think a clever person with a camera can be very dangerous. A photograph can extract people from the flow of their lives (and to some people that flow is everything). It can crop them from the lively space in which they live and have their being. A photograph can also secretly juxtapose people and objects in a highly suggestive way. Sometimes that’s a form of cruelty. I recall a photograph I saw many years ago—I won’t say who took it—of a woman in a mink coat staring into a glittering jewelry store window on Madison Avenue. She may have been idling away her time, as the rich often do, or she may have been returning home from a hospital visit to a friend who was ill. Her expression was haughty. The mink coat made it so. The photographer, of course, knew nothing about this woman, but she had turned her into a symbol of the bored rich. She’d played into a collective hunch about women in mink coats on Madison Avenue, and many viewers have undoubtedly nodded their heads at this faux profundity.

Of course, there are many occasions in which a stranger is the person you photographed, but that’s because they’ve already been reduced. They are holding a sign. They are angry. They want attention badly. And sometimes strangers simply want or need a photographer to tell their story. But, generally speaking, we need to be careful about what our photographs claim to know. The knowledge is often, as Susan Sontag once pointed out, “unearned.”

I rarely photograph people anymore.

 

THR: You have described how people see a divide between the verbal and the visual. As both a teacher—and one for whom literature led to photography—and a visual artist, you would seem to straddle this divide. Is this divide real? Why or why not?

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

Gaspé Peninsula, Canada, 2003; courtesy of the artist

JR: Frankly, I think the verbal/visual thing is an empty distinction that exempts writers from looking at Hopper’s paintings and painters from reading Faulkner’s books. But we need both kinds of artists in our lives! Yet I know that photography is connected to storytelling in a way that painting isn’t. I recognize that. Photographs—if we are to know the mind of the photographer and not just the cleverness of his image—need to exist in some kind of continuum, which can often be transformed into a narrative. Think of Robert Frank’s influential book of photographs The Americans (1958), a purely visual poem describing an America haunted by its own loneliness. It’s worth noting that Jack Kerouac wrote the introduction for The Americans.

 

THR: You have described photography as “the deep surprise of living in the ordinary world.” How have you overcome complacency or habit in order to remain in a state of wonder?

JR: Nowadays I think “wonder” is more of a capacity than a state-of-being. If you remain in a state of wonder, how could you develop any sort of wit? You’d end up like that terrible innocent, Harold Skimpole, in Bleak House.

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

Coronado, Ocala, Florida, 1986; courtesy of the artist

But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t seasons of wonder. Becoming of a photographer in the early seventies was like living in that season. My first marriage was ending in North Carolina, I’d quit teaching, I had no money, and here I was, walking around Tompkins Square on the Lower East Side, looking for the right photograph. It was as if I was wandering through an undiscovered country, not exactly lost, even though I had no idea what I’d encounter on the next block. I mean, suddenly my job consisted of looking at things and photographing them in such a way that someone else would say “Yes!” What a wonderful thing to do! Of course, aesthetic and moral questions were a kind of energy. What should I photograph? Should I look at it widely or narrowly? What are the limits of intrusion? How do I learn to slow down enough to truly look? Not having developed my own way of looking at things, I pretended, at least half the time, that I was Cartier-Bresson, and I looked for images that would contain his kind of information. Sometimes I’d see something that I liked, a bar on a corner with sunlight falling sideways on the street, and I’d just wait around for something else to happen, like a dog running by. Then the dog would run by, and I’d take the photograph, and I’d take a deep breath because I knew I was getting it.

Of course later on, when I was finally taking my own photographs, not Cartier-Bresson’s, I exchanged that early wonder for patience and know-how. That was necessary.

But the capacity for wonder doesn’t go away. In 2007, when I saw the Lower 9th Ward [in New Orleans] for the first time, I felt the same way I’d felt in 1970s in lower Manhattan. Here was a story that hadn’t been told. Other stories had been told about it, but not the one I wanted to tell. Once again, I was on fire.

 

THR: So your work in New Orleans’s Lower 9th Ward after Hurricane Katrina brought you back to the fundamental reasons for becoming a photographer. What were those fundamentals? How did you approach this project knowing that some many people were visiting the city with more prurient intent as “disaster tourists”?

JR: When my wife and I visited New Orleans in February 2007, I had no intention of photographing the Lower 9th Ward or, for that matter, any of the breached levee zones. We were there to see a city that was, once again, opening up its doors. All I knew about the Lower 9th Ward—and I learned it while the Lower 9th was filling up with water—was that the media invariably linked it to poverty and crime. Then, the Lower 9th was underwater and people drowned, and now, in 2007, it was uninhabited. I’d seen the disaster and post-disaster photographs. End of story. New Orleans wasn’t my city.

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

St. Rose Missionary Baptist Church, 9th Ward, New Orleans, 2007; courtesy of the artist

But when a local friend drove me through what remained of the Lower 9th Ward, I was shocked. Not just by its eerie silence and emptiness, although that was shocking enough. No, it was more of a mental surprise: That the Lower 9th wasn’t anything like what I’d been led to believe. It wasn’t a slum; it was a working-class neighborhood full of bungalows. There was an elementary school named after Louis Armstrong. There were churches, once full of worshipers, with wooden doors falling off their hinges. There were abandoned homes, baking in bacteria, homes that had once been lovingly tended. You could still see that. But such care was pointless now, tragically so. People, I saw, had loved this place, and soon everything was going to be demolished. The only sound I heard in the Lower 9th Ward was the rumble of dump trucks and the crunching of wood.

The collapse of the distinction between “us” and “them” is the beginning of real documentary work. It is also one of the journeys consciousness is required to take. If you don’t take it, you’re probably a propagandist.

I decided to archive the loss, to memorialize it, before everything was gone. Photographs do that very well. They’re a fine, if modest, consolation. They testify to what has been and what will be no more, and this testimony matters. I hoped my photographs would tell a story about possession and loss, community and separation. I’d photograph only the evidence. Small things. This was someone’s home. These were the bulletin boards in someone’s kindergarten class. Everything I photographed then has since been carted away.

In 2008, on the third anniversary of Katrina, the New Orleans African-American Museum held an exhibit of my Lower 9th Ward photographs. I believe that if the photographs had pretended to know more than they had a right to know, had tried, say, to capture the sorrowful faces of the dispossessed, the invitation would never have been extended.

 

THR: How do you reconcile photography’s mechanical or technical aspects with its potential for expressiveness? Has there ever been an instance in which your expertise as a photographer has failed to capture the moment you saw with the naked eye?

JR: Well, one’s proficiency—as a photographer using technical equipment—improves over time. You learn what you’re doing, and the odds of capturing what you want improve. Your timing gets better. You can anticipate, if not always what Cartier-Bresson called “the decisive moment,” then at least the indecisive moment you’ve been looking for. I know this sounds a little crazy, but on the deepest level of expression, I don’t think it matters if you’re holding a pen or a camera. “I’m an artist,” John Lennon said, “and if you give me a tuba, I’ll bring you something out of it.”

Expertise, however, is different from proficiency, especially, in the arts, where it is only approximate. Creativity, of the highest sort, has its seasons. It waxes and wanes. A photographer with expertise, one who consistently produces expert images, is probably a wedding photographer. My goal as an artist is to avoid predictability and to create fresh images. So I have to keep finding a way to slide away from my own expertise, and to realign my sights.

Some photographers take the same photograph over and over¸ and that requires a kind of expertise. It’s a way of making a living.

 

THR: Can you tell us about what sort of equipment you use? Do you prefer traditional film or digital cameras? If you use a digital camera, have there been any modifications in your methods or your approach?

JR: Well, I should start off by saying that I’ve been shooting with a digital camera for a while now. Probably out of necessity. I spend as much time working on digital prints as I used to spend in the darkroom, but now I don’t have to stand on my bad left foot.

In my case, switching from film to digital was a matter of convenience, and that’s about it. Even though I am using a new technology, the reasons why I take photographs haven’t changed. The digital camera is, really, just a camera, and the world I want to photograph is the same old world. The old challenge remains unchanged: to use my camera to disclose some sort of hidden meaning that lies below our common awareness. A poet’s task, neither more nor less. So I trained myself to look closely for the little thing that nobody was paying attention to, the quiet thing that didn’t want to give away its secret importance. An unmade bed. A chessboard in Tompkins Square after a rainstorm. Something you might walk right by.

I guess I have faith that the actual world, as it is, is enough. It’s my guiding principle. I think that if I move things around in my photographs, arrange expressions, say, or digitally create a dream effect, then I won’t meet the criterion of perception that I’ve set for myself. I want to distill reality, not modify it with software.

Of course I’m describing only one approach to image-making—one that I inherited from a certain time and place. It’s just the way I do things. It’s no better or worse than a hundred other ways of considering and making photographs. It’s just mine.

John Rosenthal’s New Orleans photographs will appear in AFTER: The Silence of the Lower 9th Ward (Safe Harbor Books, forthcoming 2015). See more of his work at www.johnrosenthal.com.

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