Sunday, December 30, 2018

Labor Studies: Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick at the Contemporary Arts Center

The legendary local jazz patriarch, Ellis Marsalis, is often quoted as saying that in New Orleans culture “bubbles up from the streets.” Probably no photographers are more aware of that than Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, lifelong Lower 9th Ward residents who documented those streets for nearly forty years. This “Labor Studies” expo explores the lives of ordinary working folk as once plentiful longshoreman jobs were supplanted by hotel and restaurant work even as farm workers lost their livelihood to machines all over America. As witnesses to those changes, Calhoun and McCormick compiled, over decades, a vast photographic archive that amounted to an impressive life's work. Then, in 2005, most of it was inundated by hurricane Katrina's floodwaters.

Much of what we see is what could be scanned from moldy prints, negatives and slides kept frozen to preserve what was left of them. Despite the damage, many assumed a surreal second life due to eerie chemical changes in their emulsion, while those that remained intact live on as windows into the past and present. McCormick's portrait of Joyce Priestly, a sugarcane cutter at the Bessie K plantation, dates from the 1980s, but nothing seems to have changed since the 1780s. Machines now do those jobs – except at the former plantation now known as the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, where photos from the early 1980s to the recent past reveal that most work is still performed by human labor, as we see in a view of a pair of mules with shirtless inmates tilling the soil with hand tools in the background. Despite being featured in every major art publication, and at every major local art museum as well as at international venues like the Whitney Museum in New York in 2016, and the 2015 Venice Biennale, Calhoun and McCormick have remained almost as below the radar as many of their subjects – for instance, the boy playing a horn on a street corner in a waterlogged image noted in their interview with the New Yorker magazine in 2010. His name was Winton Marsalis. ~Bookhardt / Labor Studies: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, Through Feb. 10, Contemporary Arts Center, 900 Camp St., 528.3805;