Richmond Art Center Richmond Art Center

Lewis Watts: New Orleans

Richmond photographer Lewis Watts, has a deep and personal connection to New Orleans. With an eye to detail and an ear to the cadence, Watts has created a body of work reflecting the perseverance and spirit of the people of New Orleans. Visits before and after the destructive force of Hurricane Katrina inform a portfolio of graphic rendering.

Central to these documents of destruction are the signs: flood water levels stained on walls, occupancy markers of abandonment. Add to this the grounded mortuary sign as tall as a building and the foundation of resiliency begins to come into focus. This is a culture in conversation with death. There is mourning. But there is also a profound exchange between life and death, face paint masking fear, a flaunting in costume, a dance in defiance of defeat.

Lewis Watts turns his camera lens on a city; however, it is the analytical viewfinder of scholar and teacher, honed through the years as professor of photography at the University of California, Santa Cruz, which picks up on the generations, distinct and yet strongly connected in this vibrant culture.

Young men gathering, father and son, multi-generation celebration, all these relationships reinforced through ritual. There are figures captured in many of these photographs. Still, the presence of people is just as strongly felt in the empty rooms – the row of hair dryers promising beauty, the bedroom echoing a loving calm, the worn braces holding a history of pain. Watts centers these objects and, the viewer, standing front and center before these documents, enters the photograph to lie down, to be cured, to be transformed.

Images of cast off crutches and illuminated altars bear witness to the power of faith. The importance of ritual is center stage in tribal bonds with ancestral heritage. Whether pilgrimage or prayer or potion, the vestiges of primal fears and hopes infuse these works. A prayer for health, a hunger for love, an offering for the future, all fulfillments just beyond grasp, seeking an additional touch of divine intervention, supernatural power, or voodoo charm.

In New Orleans that determination also drives the music. And the music drives the beat. It is a rhythm to carry youth into adulthood, it is a rhythm to carry funeral processions to the grave, it is a rhythm to carry the survivors to carry on.

The centrality of music and community traditions pulsate in these photographs. Lewis Watts offers us images of loss, hope, and determination.

Image: Lewis Watts, “By the Backstreet Museum, Mardi Gras Day, Treme 2007”

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