We'd like to think of it as the past, and in fact the dark days of September 2005 are gradually starting to recede into the vast rear-view mirror of history. A mosaic of memories, the story of that extraordinary spectacle called Katrina is something that shifts and twists depending on whose memories are recalled, but at this point we just want it to recede into something smaller and more compartmentalized. This must be especially true for those who lived through the horror, the first responders and news personnel whose job it was to deal with the chaos first-hand, and doubly so for the volunteers and freelancers who had no organizational resources to back them up.
Among the freelancers, globetrotting Brit war photographer-turned-New Orleans-based photojournalist, Charley Varley, was everywhere during and after the storm. Specializing in the straight-up grimness that news agencies favor, Varley excels at dramatic depictions of death and destruction, but this Katrina 366 show suggests that photographing New Orleans' long, slow slog back to something more like normal may have been as much therapy as it was work. Although he's photographed hellish scenes of war in Afghanistan and Kashmir and uprisings in Hong Kong and Nepal, it becomes clear in conversation that Katrina was as traumatic as anything he's experienced, and that he still remains haunted by what he saw. This floor-to-ceiling expo of more than 500 photographs taken in New Orleans over the past year includes those horrific scenes last September as well some lighter and brighter moments captured as the city, in fits and starts, came back to life again. Starting with a series marked "Then," and ending with "Now," the effect is hypnotically engaging.
Varley was with Mayor Nagin when he learned that the floodwalls had breached, and here he captures the expressions of a very mortal man trying to come to terms with the fact that hundreds of thousands of citizens for whom he is responsible have just been made homeless. We've seen pictures of wrecked neighborhoods ad infinitum, but the sinister serenity of Varley's views of Broadmoor under 6 feet of water, and the shimmering reflections of the CBD in a river called Claiborne Avenue, are unsettling. But chilling is the only word for a bloated corpse floating in the floodwaters as a caption informs us that the large, toy-like structures around him are the remains of a children's playground at Memorial Hospital. More hopeful are views of the "Cajun Navy," small boats piloted by volunteers such as Jim Delery, who rescued thousands, pulling pets as well as people from the dark waters. Such was life, and death, in the city last September.
But life goes on, as we see in the shots of life returning to some semblance of normal, as tourists, strippers and wayward teens return to Bourbon Street and Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest, helping restore the rhythmic heartbeat of America's most musical city. Still, it is the faces of those caught in the depths of the chaos that linger and haunt: the National Guardsman holding a girl who just died in his arms, the children rescued from the hell of a bridge being taken to the hell of the Superdome, a mother surveying the wreckage of her home. Photography has been called the most democratic of the arts, and here Varley is its Steinbeck, visually chronicling one of this nation's most wrenching upheavals.
Very different are the Katrina-related views of New Orleans by Lori Waselchuk. Employing wide, panoramic lenses, or else multiple images collaged into long, horizontal sequences like filmstrips, Waselchuk imposes order on the chaos. So a panoramic view of FEMA Trailers, Upper 9th Ward transforms icons of calamity into a precisely ordered composition, just as views of the Crescent City Connection transforms a scene of confrontation into an object of beauty. Collaged images of day laborers haggling for work at Lee Circle look as sleek as film stills, and we can only wish that real life conditions were as amenable to an artist's flair for imposing order and clarity on chaos.
- Photographer Charlie Varley was with Ray Nagin during the dark days last September when the mayor learned of the devastating extent of the flooding.