A Sustained Presence: The photography of Lewis Watts on the 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
When Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast four years ago, on August 29, 2005 Lewis Watts was two thousand miles away in his home in Richmond, California. He was a few days shy of beginning a residency at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art at the University of New Orleans where he planned to continue an eleven year project of photographing the city and its residents. Needless to say, his plans for a residency were interrupted and Watts, like many of us, observed the natural disaster of the storm and political disaster of the governments failure to respond through the mediation of television sets and news broadcasts.
Watts’ relationship to the South began as an informed visitor and has, over time, evolved into a participant, witness and documentarian. Watts was born in Little Rock though he was raised in Seattle, Washington and for the past forty years has lived in the Bay Area. As a child his summers were spent in his grandparents’ houses in Georgia and Arkansas. In 1994 Watts was hired as a photographer to document community youth organizing in Tennessee, Arkansas and Louisiana. It was through this job that Watts first arrived in New Orleans, an experience he describes as love at first sight. Since his initial trip in 1994, has returned to New Orleans numerous times. Through these extended visits Watts has developed relationships with local artists including John Oneal, Eric Waters and the late John Scott, lifelong residents of New Orleans who have provided him with access to aspects of the culture and traditions of the city that would have otherwise remained invisible to him. While his relationship to New Orleans is as an outsider, Watts’ photography embodies a sustained and humble presence.
New Orleans is one location of many that Watts has gravitated towards throughout his career. His ouerve consists of photographs from Harlem, New Orleans, Oakland and Richmond, urban neighborhoods that hold rich and complex histories as African-American communities. In 2005 Watts’ collaborated with Elizabeth Pepin to create the book, Harlem of the West: The San Francisco Fillmore Jazz Era which documents the brief yet flourishing jazz scene in the Fillmore District during the 1940s and 1950s with historical accounts and archival photographs. Watts’ documentation of black communities across the United States focuses on the effect of their presence on the environments in which they live and what evidence of their lives are visible in the cultural and environmental landscape. Spanning geographical distance and time, Watts work draws’ connections between these neighborhoods and the people who reside within them. In designating himself as a witness, Watts implies his own relationship within the black community of Richmond, as well as his family’s history in the South. In New Orleans, Watts documents quintessential cultural traditions such as Mardi Gras, 2nd Line Processions, jazz funerals and street musicians, as well as quotidian events: families gathered on front porches and children entertaining each other on sidewalks. His photographs express a particular interest in Treme, a neighborhood known as the oldest African community in the United States. Over the years his camera has captured public demonstrations against gentrification, popular neighborhood haunts such as the Treme Bar, and the longtime residents of this neighborhood, as well as the damage suffered after Katrina.
Lewis Watts, March Against Gentrification, Treme, 2000
While New Orleans has always been an influential city for artists and musicians, Hurricane Katrina, in a sense, renewed New Orleans as a destination for artists and particularly, photographers. The aftermath of the storm acts as a platform in which many artists attempt to make a name for themselves; they travel to the devastated city with camera in tow, hoping to offer a nuanced version of the destruction, often with the well-intentioned desire to bear witness to the aftermath of a tragedy that they witnessed first from afar. In September 2006, the Metropolitan Museum of Art featured a collection of large, color saturated photographs taken by Robert Polidori in an exhibition titled, “New Orleans, After the Flood.” Polidori’s images show walls stained by toxic flood water, cars frozen diagonally and tangled amongst tree branches, and the interior of people’s homes as though they were cross sections of a cadaver, revealing the guts of all that was damaged or lost. While these photographs undoubtedly reminded museum visitors of the scale of the disaster and raised consciousness about the state of New Orleans one year after Katrina, the disconnect between Polidori as a photographer and the site of New Orleans is great and he has received criticism for his unethical use of these photographs. This trend has continued. Just last month the cover of Color (a new publication by Black and White Magazine) featured a young photographer whose recent work focuses on the exterior of destroyed homes in post-Katrina New Orleans. (There is very little information about this magazine online and when I returned to my local newsstand the magazine had been replaced, so unfortunately I do not know this photographer’s name). The houses appear spotlighted through dramatic lighting and intensified colors. For both Polidori and this young photographer, post-Katrina New Orleans is made visible through the aestheticization of the disaster and the focus on an environment completely devoid of people who once lived there.
Beyond museums and contemporary art magazines, post-Katrina New Orleans seems to oscillate between hyper-visible and invisible. During the storm and in the days following, the unrelenting media coverage exposed a spectacle of suffering as New Orleans’ poor, predominately black residents were left to fend for themselves without assistance from the local or federal government. The media images played an important role in revealing the huge economic disparities suffered by many people of color in New Orleans—an issue that was largely invisible prior to Katrina. For those outside of New Orleans, these images framed our experience of the storm. The documentation, much of which was taken from helicopters, depicting aerial views of the flooded city, became trusted evidence and framed not only the hurricane itself, but also the lives and identities of those effected by the storm. The media images quickly turned from describing this population as the storm’s victims to criminals, therefore sedimenting racist stereotypes about black criminality. Today, four years later, the media spotlight has moved on from New Orleans and the aftermath of Katrina. With the exception of projects such as Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts or Trouble the Water, a filmdirected by Carl Deal and Tia Lessin, Katrina is no longer at the forefront of the majority of Americans’ political consciousness. In effect, New Orleans and the city’s residents gained national recognition with Hurricane Katrina, visibility that both raised awareness while relying upon racist messages and then faded to the background again.
In fact, Watts’ photograph By the Remains of the House Her Father Built, Lower Ninth Ward, 2006 addresses this tension surrounding issues of visibility. The image depicts a woman standing in the center of a driveway, her hands placed on her hips in a courageous yet, somber stance. She stares directly ahead at the camera. Behind her are the remains of the house built by her father piled so high they are nearly cut off from the frame. Directly to her right a drawing easel is set up with a carefully rendered charcoal image of this heap of unrecognizable forms. The scene is puzzling; the woman, whose body language and facial expression communicates an attachment or ownership over this site is the only person in the frame, yet the intricate, time consuming drawing is not the immediate reaction one would expect from someone who had just lost their home. It implies a detachment, an ability to observe such massive destruction from a distance. The easel was actually set up by an artist who traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward to survey the damage, his interest especially peaked by this site as it was one of the homes closest to the breach in the Industrial Canal levee and therefore, suffered a severe amount of damage. On a trip to New Orleans after Katrina, Watts happened upon this artist and as they discussed his drawing, the owner of the house drove up to observe, for the first time, the state of her family’s home. This striking image captures multiple perspectives and a variety of experiences of viewing the disaster landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans—the personal experience of loss, this loss translated into formal aesthetic choices and rendered two-dimensionally and Watts’ perspective as a witness to both, neither one nor the other, neither in nor out. In fact, Watts’ perspective remains somewhat ambiguous in this image. He presents the scene to the viewers, leaving out information about who is responsible for the drawing, and therefore, asks the viewer to surmise about the details of the scene themselves. One is left to wonder what the impact of this scene was on this Katrina survivor—both the observations of the destruction and the experience of observing her loss interpreted by another person’s perspective and artistic practice.
Watts’ portfolio from New Orleans does include photographs taken of the storm-damaged city. The images consist of abandoned buildings with multiple flood lines that mark the rising water and the facade of homes spray-painted with the symbol of the search and rescue teams. A collection of these photographs are featured in a self-published book that is the template for a pending publication by UC Press entitled “New Orleans Suite,” a collaboration with jazz scholar Eric Porter. The book includes a selection of Watts’ work from 1994 through 2008. For Watts, Katrina is one frame of reference in which to view the city, “one layer of patina” in a place with a myriad of cultural influences and overlapping histories. The photographs of post-Katrina New Orleans are treated with the same attention as Watts’ documentation from the eleven years prior. On one page is a photograph taken in 2001 of a barber shop on Magazine Street and on the next is an image of a new home built after Katrina taken in 2008. In making these jumps from before and after the storm, Watts not only indicates his sustained presence in the city, but dislodges Katrina from its position as a sole organizing structure through which to view and experience New Orleans.
Watts’ pushes the subtly of his photographs even further. Many of his recent photographs do not directly reference Katrina, the only acknowledgment of their relationship to the storm is through the date they were take or through the observation of a boarded up door in the background that may or may not be an indication of a storm-damaged home, as in Brothers from Family of Musicians, Treme, 2008. Another example of this subtly is found in Rashida Fernand’s New Bedrooms built by This Old House, 9th Ward, 2008. In this imageWatts gives us a limited view into a bedroom, framing the corner of a bed and bedside table with a lamp and framed studio portrait of a woman dating from the 1940s. The title informs us that this image was taken after Katrina in a house rebuilt by the popular television home improvement show “This Old House.” (Fernand, herself, is a New Orleans born artist who begun transforming her home into an art center before Katrina hit). Yet, this information is not inherent to the image itself. The design of the bed and bedside table are sleek indicating a contemporary style that is contrasted by the antique portrait. The photograph framed and sitting on the table indicates a cherished relationship perhaps with a deceased relative or ancestor, a passing of time not related to Katrina, yet considered later once we learn the date of the photograph. The viewer is left to wonder about the woman in the frame; who she is, what her relationship is to the inhabitants of this new house, and whether this photograph, restored to the distinct space beside the bed, is a family heirloom, one of few treasured items that survived the storm.
While Hurricane Katrina is and always will be present in the city, Watts’ photographs communicate that, for those able to return, life is continuing in New Orleans, as will his documentation. His role as an outsider is evident, he states that he “in no way claims to have the same kind of access and understanding [of New Orleans] that life long residents have.” Yet through his longtime presence he has gained the trust of local residents and an ability to step back and witness the shifts occuring in one place over a duration of time. Through the education he has received about New Orleans, Watts’ creates photographs that demand that viewers look beyond the media’s inconsistent coverage and opportunistic art projects to a city that continues to bears the weight of Katrina, and yet, whose complexities neither began nor end with the storm.
Thanks to Lewis Watts for providing me with access to his photographs.