Photographer Philip Gould captures Louisiana’s culture through his ability to recognize the right moment. Whether people or places, deliberate or by chance, his well-structured, balanced compositions are easy on the eye yet impossible to duplicate, reflecting his personal and unique viewpoint. Ironically, however, his devotion to Louisiana stems from distant roots.
To understand a place, to see its ethos in a way necessary to capture a culture so that both natives and outsiders take notice, requires a certain perspective. It requires, specifically, a fresh eye, whether one immersed from childhood, then abandoned and returned, or one, like Gould, raised elsewhere.
Philip Gould, born in 1951 in Massachusetts and raised in San Francisco by a Danish mother and a “hard-scrabble” Yankee father, graduated with a degree in photojournalism from San Jose State University. He discovered south Louisiana at age twenty-three when The Daily Iberian offered him a job, responding to his ad in a trade journal. It was, according to Gould, “the biggest cultural leap one can make.”
Awed by boudin, accordions (an instrument he eventually made his own), the French language and the “sea of bobbing heads” at the Blue Moon Café, he remained in Acadiana, eventually relocating from New Iberia to Lafayette, where he left the newspaper and made a career of, in his words, “documentary and architectural photography.”
Even after extended (and on-going) travels to Europe, Mexico, and a brief move to Dallas, south Louisiana called him home, now firmly under his skin, a fascinating and infinite source of both personal and professional inspiration.
Gould’s artfulness lies in the sense of story he lends to a single image. This includes not only a carefully chosen subject, but also a carefully cropped composition — sometimes staged (as with the landscape above and Fats Domino below) and sometimes happenstance (as with the wedding above and nuns below).
Unlike a purist or traditional photographer, he shuns the darkroom and embraces the digital, cropping as needed for patterns, anchorage and symmetry. Using the computer as a tool, he enhances with limits, applying the rules he set for himself:
“I try to make the photograph look like what I saw, even if it means tweaking or turning up the saturation a bit. I don’t generally distort things to the point to where they’re unrealistic.”
For nearly forty years Philip Gould’s photographs, although stretching from French train stations to west Texas cemeteries, focus primarily on Louisiana. Represented by LeMieux Galleries in New Orleans, his one-man exhibitions, such as Philip Gould: Louisiana Landscape and Grass Roots,* opening this Saturday, are a visual stockpile of our culture, landscape and people — seconded only by his books.
“My books,” explains Gould, “are different aspects of Louisiana rolled into an overall fabric of the state.”
In his latest collaboration with Louisiana historian Carl Brasseaux, Acadiana: Louisiana's Historic Cajun Country,* for example, “people are not predominant, allowing a slightly different view on this culturally driven area.” In other words, unlike Gould’s previous books, this one illustrates place more than people (as in the photograph from Lafourche Parish at the top of this story).
This focus was temporary, however, as Gould continues his fascination with everyone from strangers rounding the corner to small town Cajun musicians to famous Louisianians such as Ernest Gaines and Irma Thomas.
“I try to bring both cultural and historical knowledge into my interpretations. It’s the difference in how I see things.”
Of course it helps that Philip Gould has a remarkable knack for being in the right place at the right time.
Wendy Rodrigue (a.k.a. Dolores Pepper)
—For more by Philip Gould, visit his website
—*The exhibition Philip Gould: Louisiana Landscape and Grass Roots opens Saturday, December 3rd, 2011 with an artist’s reception from 6:00 — 8:00 p.m., LeMieux Galleries, 332 Julia Street, New Orleans 504-522-5988. Exhibition continues through December 30th
—*A stunning holiday gift, the book Acadiana: Louisiana’s Historic Cajun Country (2011, LSU Press), with photographs by Philip Gould and text by Carl A. Brasseaux, is available at your favorite bookstore for $45
—A similar version of this essay appears on the website KnowLA: the Digital Encyclopedia of Louisiana History and Culture and within the upcoming book The Bicentennial History of Art in Louisiana, a project edited by Michael Sartisky, Ph.D., President/Executive Director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities and J. Richard Gruber, Ph.D., Founding Director of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, scheduled for publication in April 2012 in celebration of the 200th anniversary of Louisiana’s statehood
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