For Thomas Cole, the beauty of New Orleans is all in the details. He describes himself as an aimless wanderer, a loafer of sorts, walking the city’s various neighborhoods, meeting her interesting people, and capturing the small, lovely details that many of us miss. “The whole city is full of sights to see,” Cole says. Looking at the photos from his recent book, Standing In The Shadows: New Orleans In Focus, it’s clear that Cole has a knack for finding sights that the rest of us often miss.
“And that’s understandable,” Cole says. “I mean, (people) have lives to lead, they’ve got jobs, they’ve got things to do. How are they supposed to take the time and just aimlessly wander with no schedule? That’s my luxury.”
As a photographer, Cole is what he calls “gainfully unemployed,” a position that he takes great joy in. “Writer, photographer – these aren’t professions where one actually makes any money,” he laughs, “but I manage to get by.” In addition to his photography work, Cole is a writer. He’s written pieces for Offbeat Magazine, the Bayou Brief, and others. His book contains several essays regarding the life experiences that have brought him to New Orleans, as well as some insight into where his unique vision comes from. In his early twenties, Cole traveled to India and other parts of Asia. His work in the antique carpet and textile industry there helped to hone his eye for pattern, detail, and color, something that he brought to his photography. According to Cole, talking about his time in India is unavoidable when it comes to his photography of New Orleans.
“This place reminds me too much of India in so many ways; the corruption, the bad roads, the incompetence, ineptitude…time is not money, and that’s the good thing – people will spend time. And that doesn’t happen in other cities, not in my experience. It’s not that different than India in that way, that people are happy to spend time and converse.” To Cole, it’s a refreshing change from a United States that is becoming increasingly homogenized thanks to a combination of mass media, social media, and gentrification. But New Orleans isn’t immune to those forces either. Cole notes small changes – the tile steps of Jax brewery that have been replaced with monochromatic marble, an advertising mural on an abandoned sausage factory on St. Benard now obliterated by gang graffiti. “I notice it every time I come back, things that I’ve taken photographs of in the past are gone.”
Like most artists, Cole isn’t afraid to get political when it comes to what he feels is the driving force behind the changes across the city.
“This thing with AirBnB and the encroachment on our neighborhoods, and rents are going up, people are being forced out, they can’t keep up with it. And now with the land assessments, I’ve heard some people, they were paying property taxes at $100,000 on their house and then suddenly the value of their house has been raised to $400,000 and they live on a fixed income and they can’t keep up with it. And that’s not right – to have such a dramatic reassessment in one go. I mean, if they’re doing it in increments… there was no incremental change, it was just overnight. Bang. And that’s shortsighted, and I’ve had locals here tell me that’s a plan to push people out. And I don’t know why you’d want to push the residents out, because as cool as this city is with all its colorful aspects, the music, and all that, it’s nothing without the people because the people are what’s going on here.”
But that doesn’t mean that Cole blames transplants (being one himself). In fact, with the right attitude, Cole believes that transplants can be good for New Orleans. “New blood is always good because it energizes a scene. It can work both ways.” Buying a house next to a bar on Frenchmen Street and then complaining about the noise of that bar or moving into the Treme and then getting the music scene shut down is not the right attitude to have, Cole states emphatically. That’s the type of change he hopes to see residents and transplants alike joining together and fighting against. “The fundamental culture of New Orleans is what brings people to the city. But money, money, money, money money. That is the impetus behind the homogenization of the culture of our society. Everyone is so hung up on money, and it’s a drag. We’re pricing ourselves out of existence.”
Cole’s book is a love letter to the city and people of New Orleans. An homage to the myriad small details and people that come together to make the city amazing. A thank you of sorts for the “heartfelt, authentic emotion and discourse” as well as the “spirit of reciprocity” that he has experienced with the city’s people. If you would like to pick up a copy, it’s available at Octavia Books.
Jenn Bentley is a freelance journalist and editor currently serving as Editor-in-Chief of Big Easy Magazine. Her work has also been featured in publications such as Wander N.O. More, The High Tech Society, FansShare, Yahoo News, Examiner.com, and others. Follow her on Twitter: @JennBentley_