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Review: Photos by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

D. Eric Bookhardt on a new show at the McKenna Museum


For more than 30 years, Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have been the most dedicated documenters of African-American life in Louisiana, especially in New Orleans and their native 9th Ward. Partners in art and life, their photographs have recorded the vanishing lifestyles of the countryside as well as the seemingly timeless traditions of New Orleans' second-line parades, Carnival, church rituals, marching societies and social aid and pleasure clubs. Based in the Lower 9th Ward, they assembled a massive portfolio that covered almost every nook and cranny of life in our African-American community, but Hurricane Katrina inundated their neighborhood, as well as their home and studio. When they returned, the muddy mess of most of their negatives was frozen to prevent further deterioration, but the damage was irrevocably done. Or was it?

  This Faces of Treme series documenting the rich street life of America's oldest black neighborhood features a vivid assortment of views from negatives that survived undamaged as well as some that did not. And therein lies a surprise, because the storm-ravaged emulsions of negatives that often seemed beyond redemption sometimes turned out to be, with tweaks, surprisingly eloquent, imposing a surreal, post-apocalyptic quality on their subjects, so the show alternates documentation with near abstraction. Among the former we find Calhoun's Treme Social Aid and Pleasure Club: Henry Youngblood, 1986, a pristine documentary view of a classic Treme procession scene. McCormick's Pink Pride, Trombone Shorty (pictured), also from 1986, is very different — a color abstraction where the scene has become an amorphously diffuse nimbus like a clouded, yet eloquently surreal and dreamlike, mirror. All comprise a priceless record of the street life — including portrait studies of great musicians and local characters — that made Treme the national treasure it is today. The photographic duo who documented this and other vital African-American communities became its recording angels. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT

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