UCSC professor presents stirring images of New Orleans pre-and post-Hurricane Katrina
UC Santa Cruz art professor Lewis Watts was preparing for a trip to New Orleans, La. for an Artist-in-Residency program when Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in 2005. Determined to reach the city, the renowned photographer and archivist went to Memphis, Tenn., rented a car and drove 400 miles into New Orleans, which was only accessible by vehicle. He arrived six weeks after the storm passed through New Orleans and immediately began taking pictures of the damage and residents.
The resulting collection, in addition to photographs he has taken during his many trips to the city since 1994, is on display at the Mary Porter Sesnon Art Gallery at UC Santa Cruz now through Nov. 21, as part of a free exhibit entitled “Lewis Watts: New Orleans Suite.” “This is a look at New Orleans with Katrina as a frame of reference,” says Watts.
He vividly remembers the day he arrived in the storm-ravaged city.
“The first thing that hit me was that the damage, the devastation, was much worse than any photographs,” he says. “I had been following the New York Times and different places, and a lot of the photography didn’t translate completely. For a very short while I thought, ‘Well maybe I won’t photograph.’ But I did.”
In fact, he put in 10-hour days photographing for two weeks straight, and then left the city with what he describes as “disaster fatigue.”
“Fortunately when I went, I had connections from friends to people in the artist community,” says Watts. That gave him access to places in the city that were normally off-limits to out-of-town photographers.
Most of his photos—presented in black and white—were taken in film and then digitized and printed on paper to give them the look of conventional photographs. One of his most striking images is of a house that was completely destroyed by storm.
“This was during the two weeks when I first got there and there were a lot of photographers skulking around … and they were not acknowledging each other,” Watts says of the photo. “But I saw a guy doing a pastel (of the house) in the Lower Ninth Ward and I walked up to him … and when we were talking, this woman came up and her father had built this house by hand.” Watts’ photo captures the pastel painting in progress and the woman in front of the remains of the house.
Not all of the photographs in Watts’ exhibition focus on the disaster, however. Happier times were captured during his other trips to the city, including one instance in 2007 when a friend in the local art community invited him to experience Mardi Gras with a tight-knit neighborhood that wouldn’t normally welcome tourists. There, he was able to immerse himself in the culture and document things like the Mardi Gras Indians.
“At a certain point during the late 19th century, African Americans were not allowed to mask in carnival … so they would dress as Indians basically to get around that, and also in tribute to the fact that a lot of escaped slaves were given refuge by the Indians,” Watts explains.
A photo he took of the Mardi Gras Indians, which is included in the Sesnon Gallery exhibition, also appeared in the opening credits for the first season of the HBO series Treme, which follows a group of New Orleans natives as they rebuild their lives after Hurricane Katrina.
In addition to his New Orleans collection, there is an adjoining room in the Sesnon Gallery filled with color photographs that Watts took on a recent trip to Cuba. He points out that there are historical similarities between Cuba and New Orleans, including colonial influence by both the French and the Spanish. In addition, in Cuba, Watts found the same sort of mixture of races and cultures that he has experienced in New Orleans.
Watts shares the fear expressed by many whom he has met in New Orleans that the culture which makes the city so unique is in danger of being lost. With his exhibition, he hopes to help preserve it.
“I was there last fall, and the one thing I noticed is it seemed to be the closest to pre-Katrina that I’ve seen. Some of the FEMA marks and the marks from the storm are really starting to disappear,” says Watts. “On some level people are happy about that, but on another level they say that now people are forgetting about New Orleans … (and that) there are a lot of people that left that didn’t come back.”
Lewis Watts: New Orleans Suite’ is on display through Nov. 21, at the Mary Porter Sesnon Gallery at UC Santa Cruz, 1156 High St., Santa Cruz. No cover. The First Friday curator’s walk-through will take place at 2 p.m. on Nov. 2. A special weekend event featuring Cuban music by Flor de Caña will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Nov. 4. For details, call the gallery at 459-3606 or visit art.ucsc.edu/galleries/sesnon/current. Photos: Lewis Watts