Will the New Orleanians of the future gather around with family and friends to peruse their favorite Hurricane Katrina photos and reminisce about the bad old days? Well, maybe. While they may lack the appeal of wedding or vacation pictures, there may come a day when you have to show the younger generation the photo of the refrigerator that floated on to your roof, or how your old house looked after it floated off down the road, back in the flood of '05. Hey, those were the days! And when that particular future rolls around, David Rae Morris will be better prepared than most.
A Mississippi native, Morris was active in this city as well as in Bay St. Louis and Waveland in the immediate aftermath of the storm. His photographs of familiar places sitting in several feet of water, if not washed away entirely, elicit a mix of nostalgia and dread. Nostalgia because we were living in a more innocent time when the storm hit; dread because the horror we witnessed on the TV news changed everything forever. Even so, there's a kind of beauty in Underwater Souls, a view of St. Louis Cemetery seen from I-10, its ancient raised crypts reflected in the water like ghostly villas on the canals of Venice. But his Projects photo of the St. Bernard housing project is more clearly calamitous, as water lapping the tops of cars and a helicopter hovering over roofs with gaping holes provide graphic evidence that something has gone terribly wrong here. Ditto the crusty old coffin that floated away from its crypt in Untombed, Rural Cemetery, St. Bernard Parish.
Coastal scenes such as Beachfront Property, Waveland, in which some nice wood and tile flooring appears surrounded by sand where a home once stood, or Lighthouse, a view of the Biloxi lighthouse standing pristine as it rises unscathed from a massive pile of rubble, reveal a Mississippi coast savaged by storm damage more extreme than previously thought possible. Where the New Orleans flood was unthinkable for its immensity, the destruction on the Gulf Coast was unthinkable for its near-nuclear intensity. Katrina made Camille, the previous most deadly storm, look like a cakewalk, and Morris's color photographs capture scenes so matter-of-factly cataclysmic as to defy our capacity for comprehension. As with the Holocaust, some with a partisan agenda may try to minimize what happened here, but Morris -- son of the late Mississippi author Willie Morris -- has rendered the evidence with an acerbic, if poetic, authority.
Hurricanes have a way of compressing time, doing as much damage in a day as might ordinarily occur over decades. A companion exhibit, Missing New Orleans, takes a look at local landmarks that have disappeared, victims not of storms but of time and happenstance. It's a companion to Philip Collier's superb book of the same name, to be reviewed separately. But another show designed with Missing in mind is worth the attention of anyone who likes art with a dash of history. And while New Orleans Through the Artist's Eye at Jean Bragg may lack the pop panache of Missing, most of these quietly intimate works would fit right in at the Ogden.
Will Henry Stevens' Boat at Pontchartrain Beach pastel of a fishing boat on a sandy beach recalls Paul Ninas' Caribbean scenes until you note the spidery loops of the Zephyr roller coaster ride in the background. William Woodward's vintage painting Tenement Near Esplanade reminds us of just how picturesque our slums once were. Meanwhile Walter Anderson's drawing On Canal Street depicts pedestrians like zombies trolling the baroque facades of the old shopping district. But it is Pops Whitsell's N.O. Photography Club that epitomizes the local art scene at mid-century as nattily dressed 1940s ladies and gentlemen aim their vintage cameras at an uncharacteristically fully clothed model. Time waits for no one, but these Artist's Eye views exude insight as well as nostalgia. How all those Katrina photos are perceived in the future depends on a federal administration that, after wrecking our city with defective levees, can't seem to make up its mind to repair the damage.
- In David Rae Morris' Lighthouse photograph, the Biloxi lighthouse emerges unscathed from the ruins of the city.