Sunday, January 13, 2013

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at McKenna

For over 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 record the vanishing lifestyles of the countryside as well as the timeless traditions of the city's second line parades, carnival and church rituals, marching societies and social aid and pleasure clubs. Based in the Lower 9th Ward, they had assembled a massive portfolio that covered almost every nook and cranny of life in our African American communities by the time hurricane Katrina inundated their city and neighborhood, as well as their home and studio. After they returned, the muddy mess that was all that remained 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 post-apocalyptic, surreal quality on their subjects, so the show alternates between documentation and near abstraction. Among the former we find Calhoun's Treme Social Aid and Pleasure Club: Henry Youngblood, above, a pristine 1986 documentary view of a classical Treme procession scene, as is McCormick's 6th Ward High Rollers, left, while her Pink Pride, Trombone Shorty, top, 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 the great musicians and local characters--that made Treme the national treasure that it is today, even as the photographic duo who documented this and other vital African American communities became their recording angels.~D. Eric Bookhardt

Faces of Treme: Photographs by Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun, Through Jan. 26, McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St., 586-7432. Left: Baby Doll Alma Borden, 1987, by Keith Calhoun