Note: All photographs published in this article are the property of Thomas Cole.
What exactly s
What exactly separates this very old, scenic and, at times, colorful town from others I have visited? I spent nearly a quarter of my life in the most foreign and exotic locales on this planet – Istanbul, Kabul, Goa, Kathmandu, Bali, Chiang Mai, Lhasa and everywhere in between. Why do I linger over, photograph and write about New Orleans?
This community has been through more than I can imagine; I was not present for the storm or the ugly aftermath nor can I pretend to understand what goes on here or in the heads of people who experienced the very worst of times in this storied city. I can only know what I have experienced walking the length and breadth of the city for many hours in a day, occasionally stopping to exchange pleasantries with its residents and fully engaged in this apparently endless pursuit of images.
What have I seen and heard in a city of countless stories as well as colorful sights? Passing through Tremé, I spied an unusually large cactus in bloom with large red flowers, literally obscuring a house front from the view of any random passersby. But the light was wrong; it was still early morning, and blanketed in shadows, often the case with a city laid out on a north/south – east/west grid. I had to return in the afternoon, took note of the street name and closest intersection, filed it away in the back of my mind and departed. I came back two days later to find two men seated on the front stoop, smokingcigarettes, deeply immersed in conversation. Hesitatingly, I interrupted them to ask if it was ok to take a photograph, to which they readily agreed. Pressing me on my mission in the city, not unlike India of old when the most common question a tourist ever heard was “What is your purpose?”, I responded to these New Orleanians with plans for a forthcoming book of photographs.
Apparently that opened the door to further questions and, at times, earnest conversation, provoked more out of curiosity rather than an interrogation borne from suspicion. We spoke easily and at length with one another. When asked where I stayed, to further bolster my recently found New Orleanian profile as a homeowner, I told them of my acquisition in the south 7th Ward, now euphemistically referred to as the New Marigny by hopeful realtors.
Inevitably, the words gentrification in tandem with Tennessee Williams’ renowned quote came up – the one about America and the only three cities that matter and all the other ones that don’t, lumped together as one big Cleveland, shudder the thought. We readily agreed that people like me contribute to the problem with the transformation of old neighborhoods and rising land values in an area of town where artists, musicians, potters and poets live, forced to either pony up more monthly rent or move out to allow capitalism to pursue its problematic and decidedly ugly course.
A half hour into our conversation, they assured me I was not the problem, but merely a symptom of the inherent issues associated with the changing demographics in an older city. It was people who came to speculate and leave rather than those investing time and soul into the community; apparently my photographic mission resonated with these two. One of the young men extended a cordial invitation to come to a club down St. Claude near my place; he was playing that night. I told him I would try but secretly doubted I could or would fit in with a group of ‘kids’ enjoying a rap music band, no matter how many beers I might consume.
Two hours later, after trudging through Tremé, the Quarter, the Bywater and finally headed back home near the intersection of St. Claude and Elysian Fields, a horn blaring from a passing car interrupted my thoughts. Glancing up, my new friend, leaning out the window of his car waved with a joyous smile. Hmmm… maybe there is a place for older white guys in this very young and decidedly hip part of town? Where else could or would such an exchange take place followed two hours later with an emphatic reaffirmation?
What bound us together for that half hour discourse? Only the willingness to communicate, share and possibly learn from one another. Very much unlike any other large American city I’ve visited where reticence, suspicion, and more rule the day. Arguably there are real things to fear in this city, with a crime and murder rate far exceeding the national average but, perfect strangers continue to stop and speak with one another, statistics be damned.
Another morning winding my way through a neighborhood deep in the heart of the 7th Ward, a place I had been warned against visiting – certainly by night with only slightly better odds of a safely navigated daytime trek – I met a young mixed couple with their child on a quiet residential street. The child, sporting his Superman pajamas complete with cape, was playing on the sidewalk with his rather plainly attired, apparently working class mother watching closely. Dad hovered nearby as well, reveling in the affection of his young son. With a simple, “Good morning, how are you?”, I expected to pass uneventfully. But again, conversation ensued and eventually he shyly inquired about the camera I was carrying and could I take a photograph of the child. Naturally, I agreed and after a few minutes more of idle talk, he hesitantly asked me for $0.70. Seventy cents!? Thinking to myself, why that apparently random number? So I actually questioned him. He needed exactly that to buy a loaf of bread at the local market on nearby Broad St. Naturally, I gave it to him, touched by his simple manner and ability to overcome whatever embarrassment he might feel for needing, not wanting, to ask for such a paltry sum of money… a poignant human moment on these supposedly rough and tumble streets of the infamous 7th Ward.
Speaking of money, the rare occasion I go to a bank in this town, I always end up at the tiny Royal St. branch of the Chase Bank. Why Chase, you might ask? There’s no reason, but I walked in one day, covered with sweat. Drenched in fact. Luxuriating in the AC comfort and patiently waiting for attention from the single teller on duty, my mind wandered. Suddenly it was my turn, and with a rare check to deposit for a photograph sold, I stepped up to the window. Apologizing for my disheveled appearance and placing the camera on the counter, I produced the check along with a checkbook, and asked the teller to fill in the deposit slip. Smiling, she brushed aside my apologies with assurances this bank was open to all, including soiled and sweaty laborers on their lunch breaks, or weary bar workers after a hard day’s night of toiling in the trenches. While processing the transaction, she asked about the camera, an obvious segue into a conversation, leaving unspoken the obvious squalor of my personal appearance.
Telling her what I was up to, she inquired if I had any idea about the name of the proposed book. “Yes”, I replied… “Standing in the Shadows.” Her puzzled expression left no doubt further explanation was warranted and I offered her the reasoning – it was the title of a film about the back up band for every Motown hit ever made and I liked the movie. And the title makes sense, as too often photographers are chasing light and shadows across the city as the sun and clouds moves slowly through the sky. She listened, dropped the deposit slip onto the counter, and asked again for the movie title, jotting it down on a scrap of paper as we continued to converse. And no one in the growing line displayed even the slightest hint of impatience. Was that possible? Studying the faces of those waiting few, it was apparent that time is not as precious here as it is in other parts of America. Or many other countries, for that matter.
Hmm.. and I wonder why this place suits me? How could it not, feeling as I do about America – like an alien dropped into a very strange world, recalling Heinlein’s classic tale of estrangement and wonder, Stranger in a Strange Land. It is no surprise I like this place called New Orleans and feel comfortable within its visually compelling and tolerant-of-crazy confines.
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 am unsure. The city continues to dazzle and bewitch and, for some, is an enchanting town of serendipity that Andrei Codrescu poetically characterized as one that “feeds the dreamer’”.
So, why do I swoon over you, New Orleans? It is a long story, but not nearly as long as yours and hardly important. But thank you for revealing some of your fascinating tale at this stage of my life; I am truly grateful.
Thomas Cole is a New Orleans photographer. Ok September 1, 2019, Big Easy Magazine interviewed Mr. Cole. He recently published Standing in the Shadows: New Orleans in Focus.