Cheryl Gerber on why she photographs New Orleans


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"St. Roch Market" by Cheryl Gerber, as seen in her book New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy.
  • "St. Roch Market" by Cheryl Gerber, as seen in her book New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy.

In this week's cover story, longtime
Gambit photographer Cheryl Gerber shares images from her new book, New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy. Here she talks about how she got started as a New Orleans photographer, and the changes she's seen in the city since. — Ed.

I started photographing New Orleans in 1990, right after I was laid off from my job at New Orleans Magazine where I worked as an editorial assistant. It was my first job in New Orleans after college.

I had studied journalism at Southeastern Louisiana University and already worked on two Louisiana newspapers as a reporter when it became evident that my fate as a reporter was doomed. My editor at the St. Tammany News Banner handed me a camera one day to take photos to go along with the story I was assigned. He ran the photo extra large and cut most of my story. Each week the photos got bigger and the stories got smaller so I took that as an indication that perhaps I might be better at telling stories through photographs. I was devastated after being laid off my first real job so I applied to The Times-Picayune for a photography position. They nearly laughed me out of the door but I guess that worked out for the best.

So I kept searching for avenues to make photography happen. That's when I discovered the amazing work of Michael P. Smith. I called him several times to make myself available to work for him for free but each time I called he couldn't remember who I was. After the fifth call, he finally agreed to meet me and I assisted him on a couple of jobs, but he was frank and told me that he didn't know what I could do for him besides carry his bags on some rare commercial jobs.

With no more options at making a living at that point, I took a position in Honduras teaching English. I sublet my apartment, packed my bags and move to Siguatepeque, Honduras. While I was there I took Mike Smith's advice and photographed as much as I could. Still not sure what I was going to do and how I was going to make a living in photography, I just kept photographing everything I saw.

Then one day after walking three miles to the post office, which I walked to every day to find nothing waiting in the mailbox, there was a postcard from Mike saying that he thought of something I could do for him when I got back. I returned at the beginning of 1992 and he let me stay in his studio. I began printing for Mike and trying to sell his work around town. Working with Mike opened up a whole new world for me. My family moved to a rural corner of the Northshore, so I wasn't exposed to the side of New Orleans that Mike documented so well. Not only did he teach me how to expose film and print in the darkroom, he taught me how to behave on the streets of New Orleans, how to respect Mardi Gras Indians when photographing them and how to duck when things get tense and guns were drawn.

I soon realized that I wanted to get serious about photography and started trying to get work. But it was so hard to find work as a photographer during that time. With no real work experience, I started trying to sell stories, written with photographs.

I got my first big break in 1994 when I wrote a story about the gutter punks in New Orleans. Everyone was up in arms about these new visitors to the city, hanging out on Decatur Street, so I followed them around for a couple of months and wrote a story and took pictures, then brought my package to Gambit. The story was a big hit and I have been working at Gambit ever since. I'll never forget the day that I walked into the then-PJs on Frenchmen Street and saw a policeman reading the story in Gambit. He looked at me, not knowing that it was my story, and said, "This is the best thing I've seen in a long time."

From that moment I wanted to tell stories about people in New Orleans.

It's really funny to look back at that story I did 22 years ago, and see that aspect of life in New Orleans has not changed much at all. Decatur Street still looks very much the same. Most of the gutter punks I photographed are long gone, but I do see one guy who still works on Decatur Street and teaches tai chi in Washington Square.

But so much of New Orleans has changed. We all know obvious things like the influx of new young people and the gentrification of New Orleans — but what I think has changed most is the loss of a feeling like you were part of this amazing secret society that most people didn't know or care about. Since Katrina, so many people have discovered New Orleans and moved here that it doesn't feel like the same city. At first I was upset about gentrification and the loss of our authenticity but it's nice to see so many people admiring the things that perhaps we New Orleans took for granted.

So many things have changed in the photography world. So many photographers have flocked to the city since Katrina; there is a noticeable difference on the streets. In the 1990s, second lines were photographed by a handful of people. Now dozens of photographers jockey to get the best shots. And it’s noticeable in the photo pit at Jazz Fest too — there’s often often more photographers than bands on the lineup.

But the biggest change I've seen as a photographer has been the ability to photograph Mardi Gras Indians without any problems. Back when I first started photographing street culture in the early ‘90s, I could not photograph the Mardi Gras Indians without their permission in advance. Whenever I tried to take photos of them I would get a hand in my lens or get yelled at. I was yelled at often. In one case, a Mardi Gras Indian came running up to me so fast that I nearly fainted. Turns out he was a busboy at the Gumbo Shop where I waited tables and he was just coming to give me a hug. But that’s how scary it was. You couldn’t just stick a camera in an Indian’s face without asking first. Nowadays, Indians pose for photographs and even do selfies for admirers.

I got the idea to do the juxtapositions when I was lamenting that I squandered the past 25 years photographing everything I could just to keep a roof over my head, and not what I really wanted to photograph. Though I’ve always been really grateful for every single photo shoot I was ever assigned, I regretted not spending more time in the street photographing the ordinary people of New Orleans. But the great thing about doing the book was that it taught me that every one of those not-so-exciting assignments tell the complete New Orleans story.

One such assignment was shooting party pics at a fundraiser. That’s when — lo and behold — I found two photographs that simply summed up my life and career in New Orleans and New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy was born (though my original title was New Orleans: I Love You, I Hate You).

While writing a caption for a photo of a high-profile socialite with a Marie Antoinette hairdo at a ballet fundraiser, I noticed another photo on the other side of my computer screen of a woman from Treme with a very similar ’do. I looked at the two women side-by-side and chuckled, “Only in New Orleans.” Here were two quintessential New Orleans ladies, side-by-side on my computer from the same city yet a world apart. I always marveled at the way New Orleanians connected yet lived so separately.

As a photojournalist, my work brought me into the homes of the wealthiest and poorest citizens of the city. Some days, I couldn’t believe where I had been. One minute I’d be photographing oil tycoon Patrick Taylor for a late after-lunch martini at the Sazerac Bar, and by happy hour, I was yucking it up with Ernie K-Doe at the Mother-in-Law Lounge. That’s what makes New Orleans so rich — the social ironies, the dichotomies and the downright ridiculous coincidences.

So I found more and more of these juxtapositions that were very funny, and it became this really fun project. It cracked me up to find a photo of a drag queen dressed as Little Bo Peep that looked very much like Archbishop Alfred Hughes. Or a serious National Guardsman across the page from the Lady Buckjumper in camouflage with a cigar hanging out of her mouth. Or a Tomato Queen being crowned in Chalmette next to a Wild Tchoupitoulas spy girl’s mother setting her daughter’s headdress.

As I delved deeper into my archives, though, I started to notice some of the things that make life not so funny, and more difficult. Sometimes downright depressing. We all know about death in New Orleans. Dying is as much as part of life as living.

Many of these juxtapositions really had a profound effect on me. For example, photographing Travis “Trumpet Black” Hill as an 8-year-old and then photographing his funeral 20 years later. Photographing the vigil for the Louisiana Pizza Kitchen murders in 1996 was eerily similar to the vigil for murdered bartender Wendy Byrne in 2010.

Without a doubt the one juxtaposition that had the most emotional effect on me was the first second line Uptown after Hurricane Katrina. I will never forget following the Hot 8 Brass Band on New Year's Eve, 2005. When the music started, the tears began to flow. There wasn’t a dry eye in the crowd. As Hot 8 performed “I’ll Fly Away,’’ I didn’t think I’d have the energy to endure the rest of the parade. It was one of the most beautiful experiences of all of my days in New Orleans.

I look at that photo with so much joy, and yet so much pain, because exactly, almost to the day, I had to photograph the funeral of Dinerral Shavers, the snare drummer for Hot 8, after he was struck by a bullet intended for someone else.

Those are the things that make living in New Orleans so hard. When I start to rant about all the ills of New Orleans, some ask why I stay. I’ve asked myself that question a million times. And the answer is the people. I simply love people, especially New Orleanians. Even in our darkest days, we pull together and rejoice in being here. Together – black, white, rich, poor, gay, straight, young and old. I think that’s what makes New Orleans so special. We celebrate life and death like nowhere in the world.

And I will never run out of things to photograph. 


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