by Gerald Boerner

  

JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 If there is an area associated with African American culture in this country, it would be in New Orleans. More specifically, it would be on Bourbon Street and especially in the Lower 9th Ward of that city. These people may be poor, but they are proud of their people and culture. Having visited this area back in 2000, the houses were apparently run-down on the outside, but filled with pride and family on the inside.

All this was changed when hurricane Katrina hit. It devastated the city, YES, but it especially was brutal on the Lower 9th Ward. Along with the outward destruction of the flood waters, a treasure trove of photography was partially lost as well. Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick had documented the Black community in New Orleans for years and many of their images were “whipped out” by the flooding. Today, we recognize their dedication to their communityGLB

    

“If you want the soul of the city, we have images that depict not the tourist part but what you call the black belt of the South.”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“We knew we had to get a space. Our work is part of the community. It needed a place to live…”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“Me and Chandra knew it would bring a light to the community. We made the whole art world to come to the Ninth ward.”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“Fats Domino’s piano in debris and Keith and Chandra’s photographs floating away.”
— Douglas Brinkley

“The message is (from) a very poor neighbourhood that has pollution.”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“Many people want to help after a disaster. What I discovered is a situation that existed before the storm, a problem that could even be found in the blood of children…”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“It’s a different way of understanding art. Some art now is being made (that) allows the person visiting to be part of it. (Visitors) will find something worthy of protecting. They can enter it and find something that is really valuable.”
— Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

“The Lower Ninth Ward is kind of the heart and soul of the African-American experience in New Orleans, and what’s New Orleans without the African-American experience? It would be a big statement if we could save the Lower Ninth Ward, and I think some of their cultural photography could be helpful toward that end.”
— Douglas Brinkley

  

Black Photographers: Keith Calhoun & Chandra McCormick 

KeithCalhoun_ChandraMcCormick_opt Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick both grew up in the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans and have documented the city and surrounding areas for the past three decades. Keith and creative partner and wife Chandra have focused their cameras intensively on musicians, dockworkers, churchgoers, and agricultural laborers, as well as inmates at the Angola State Penitentiary. Keith and Chandra’s work has been featured in Aperture Magazine and in Deborah Willis’ landmark compilation Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers, 1840 to the Present. Their photographs have been exhibited at the Smithsonian Institution, the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Philadelphia African American Museum, the Civil Rights Museum, and the New Orleans Museum of Art.

McCormick and Calhoun lost two-thirds of their photographic archives when their home and studio were ravaged by the floodwaters of Hurricane Katrina. In 2006, Keith and Chandra received a Katrina Media Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to produce 40 post-flood portraits of fellow displaced residents now living in Oklahoma, Louisiana, Texas, and Tennessee. More recently, the two have completed extensive renovations on a shotgun double near the site of their former home and have turned this building into a gallery and community center. Named the L9 Center for the Arts, the facility includes dedicated space for artists-in-residence and will be one of the official venues for "Project.1 New Orleans," the largest biennial of contemporary art ever held in the United States.

It was 1978. A few years later, they were married, and they’ve been documenting life in New Orleans as close collaborators ever since, especially in the Lower Ninth Ward and the Treme, the neighborhood just north of the French Quarter and one of the first free black neighborhoods in the country.

Calhoun and McCormick fled to the Houston area the day before Hurricane Katrina hit. “We left everything,” McCormick said. “We took a box, but it wasn’t that large, and once we got to Texas, it really wasn’t the important stuff.” When they left, the house was full of two lives’ work: thousands of prints, countless negatives. When they returned, ten weeks later, much of it was gone, and that which remained was waterlogged and caked with mud.

Distraught, they threw away a lot of the damaged prints and negatives. Then their son suggested they stop. The water had left swirling patterns of color on some of the transparencies, and the spots of mold on some of the prints looked quite beautiful if you looked past what had been lost. “What do you do?,” Keith said, holding up a mold-marbled image of a young Wynton Marsalis playing trumpet on a streetcorner. “Do you throw this away, or does it become a piece of art?”
The New Yorker

Chandra McCormick

Chandra McCormick is a documentary photographer who chronicles the sociocultural aspects of human life. Born in New Orleans in 1957, her career background includes photography, activism, and history, which has given her a unique capability to focus on a range of subjects not commonly covered by other documentary photographers.

McCormick is renowned for capturing many different aspects of New Orleans culture, as well as the lifestyles of her fellow New Orleanians. In addition to documenting the city’s social and cultural history, McCormick has studied and documented religious ceremonies of the Spiritual Churches, which have rarely been captured. She has also focused on African American laborers, such as sugarcane scrappers and sweet potato workers of rural Louisiana. She has produced an extensive body of work on Angola Prison, focusing on its incarcerated men and the impact of the prison system on their families; the work was featured in Aperture in February 2006.

Her work has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including Aperture, The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, and Albuquerque Tribune. Her photographs have been included in exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn Museum, Philadelphia African American Museum, Civil Rights Museum, New Orleans Museum of Art, the Peace Museum, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, New York University, and Aperture Gallery.

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Keith Calhoun

Born and raised in the Lower Ninth Ward, Keith Calhoun is a New Orleans photographer committed to documenting the local culture, spirit, and people of his hometown.

Keith began his photographic career running a portrait studio in the French Quarter of New Orleans. Since then, he has documented the African American community in New Orleans and its surrounding areas, creating a unique body of work that chronicles the daily lives and cultural richness of this community over the past thirty years. Past work includes stories on laborers on the loading docks of the Mississippi River, sugarcane plantations on River Road, and day laborers working in sweet potato and cotton fields. In addition, he has produced an extensive body of work on Angola Prison, focusing on its incarcerated men and the impact of the prison system on their families; the work was featured in Aperture in February 2006.

Calhoun’s work has been published in numerous magazines and newspapers, including The New York Times, Houston Chronicle, Chicago Sun-Times, and Albuquerque Tribune. His photographs have been included in exhibitions at the Smithsonian Institution, Brooklyn Museum of Art, Philadelphia African American Museum, Civil Rights Museum, New Orleans Museum of Art, The Peace Museum, The Nathan Cummings Foundation, New York University, and Aperture Gallery. He has received several awards from the New Orleans Press Club.

Their Work

The New York Times featured these two photographers and their work in documenting the life of the Black, Lower 9th Ward of New Orleans. They observed:

NEW ORLEANS — On a hazy summer afternoon several years before Hurricane Katrina, Chandra McCormick spied a juke joint with an open door in the Lower Ninth Ward. She nudged her husband, Keith Calhoun, and they stopped their car.

For a Slide Show, Click on the image below:

Keepers of the Culture

Before the hurricane forced his family into exile in Texas, Mr. Calhoun used to love nothing more than to slip inside some neighborhood dive with a camera on his shoulder. Casual and loose-limbed, he would buy a beer, banter with the men, flirt with the ladies and wait for the moment when the light or the vibe was just right.

Juke Joint

A photograph of Junior’s Bar,
in the Lower Ninth Ward of
New Orleans.
— Keith Calhoun.

Documenting, he called it, or chronicling. Mr. Calhoun and Ms. McCormick, both photographers who grew up in the mostly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, dedicated their existence to it. They considered themselves "keepers of the culture," guardians of a small-town way of life in black Louisiana that was fading even before Katrina destroyed so much so quickly.

On that afternoon at Junior’s juke joint, Mr. Calhoun did not wait long for his moment. Light was streaming into the storefront bar beside the Industrial Canal. A man paused in the doorway, pouring a beer into a tilted cup, the shadow of his legs tracing stripes across the floor. Perched on carpeted benches beneath a mirror that toyed with their reflections, the other patrons chatted and laughed, their bodies slack in the heat.

      

References:

Deborah Willis. (2002) Reflections in Black: A History of Black Photographers 1840 to the Present. W.W. Norton & Co.

Background and biographical information is from Wikipedia articles on:

Wikipedia: Chandra McCormick… 
[None Available]

Wikipedia: Keith Calhoun…
[None Available]

Web Sites and Blogs: 

Calhoun McCormick Photography: Bio…
http://calhounmccormickphotography.com/Bios/Bio.html

The New York Times: When the Lower Ninth Posed Proudly…
http://www.nytimes.com/2006/02/09/arts/09stre.html

The New Yorker: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick’s New Orleans…
http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2010/02/mardi-gras.html

The Star: New Orleans’ Hidden Treasures…
http://www.thestar.com/article/585989