Monday, August 15, 2011

Jennifer Shaw's Hurricane Story

Shooting powerfully emotional events with a camera is often a complex performance, because the act of photographing has built into it a process of distancing, of stepping back from the events themselves. One of the ironies of photography as an art form is this dance between the illusion of presence and the distancing that makes the image possible.

We understand something of what it was like to "be there" because the photographer has stepped into a situation with a camera and yet stepped back from it in the act of making the image, so that the event is transformed from lived 3-dimensional reality into a two dimensional image on a gallery wall or on the pages of a book or in the dancing electrons of a computer monitor. 

Usually, the photographer replicates our outsider role in such situations, someone coming into the situation to be a witness to it and to record it so that we can "be there," too, in the strange way a photograph places us before an event.

But sometimes the photographer is not an outsider, but an insider, a person caught up in the event itself, with powerful consequences for the person. The question then is, where and how does one find the distance on the experience to make sense of it, or at least to make art of it, when the events are crashing around the photographer, threatening to overwhelm the place that is the place of refuge from which one works.

New Orleans-based photographer Jennifer Shaw usually makes shots of Mardi Gras and the other wonders of New Orleans with her Holga camera and prints them up in B&W, incorporating split-toning in the process to heighten the moody and romantic character of the place and the people. 

Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans when Shaw was nine months pregnant. She and her husband left the city early on August 28th, 2005, in a truck, as she says, "loaded up . . . two cats, two dogs, two crates full of negatives, all our important papers and a few changes of clothes."  They fled to a motel in southern Alabama; the next day, New Orleans was flooded and their son was born.

Their journey home took them two months and 6000 miles of driving. What they came home to was, of course, the well-documented experience of a devastated city.New parenthood is enough of a disturbance to one's world; simply put, all the twos in Shaw's account of their departure -- two people, two cats, two dogs, two crates -- now had to accommodate a third figure. For Shaw and her husband, all the change was magnified many-fold by the effects of the storm.

Post-Katrina New Orleans has attracted lots of photographers, not to mention movie makers like Spike Lee and the TV crews of Treme. It has joined Detroit as as the place to go to document urban ruin and the anguish that goes along with it. Most of them, however, have been in the conventional photographer's position of outsider coming in, with the goal of taking us there with them.

What Shaw has done is to use her camera to make work out of her experience as an insider. She's still shooting with her Holga, but she has shifted to color film, and to photographing not the surfaces of New Orleans' devastation, but groupings of dolls and toys.

I don't generally like images that depict scenes manufactured out of sets and toy figures, but in Shaw's images this strategy works powerfully and evocatively. Here, this approach is not just a game of perspective and personification. Shaw's decision to do this project with toys enables her to externalize in her images complex experiences of fear, dread, disorientation, and recovery even as the familiar world of home ceases to be a place of respite but a constant source of challenge.

The images in this body of work are playful and eerie, menacing and reassuring. disturbing and mundane. They are honest, truthful, hopeful, and engaging. They are about endings and new beginnings, about the loss of the familiar and the restoration of order. Having seen them, I feel I now know about the experience of Katrina not just in terms of broken surfaces but in terms of one person's experience from within.

And you can have them as they came to me, in a well-produced volume, with an introduction by Rob Walker, called Hurricane Story, from Broken Levee Books and Chin Music Press. This is fine work, well worth a look.

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