Wednesday 14 April 2021

Down the Mississippi in Monochrome

Recent lockdown rooting through old negatives and digitising turned out to be a lot less rewarding than I hoped. Resulting scans were often hazy, unfocused, poorly exposed and tonally flat.  The passage of time has stubbornly failed to confer much in the way of retrospective luminosity. This group of photographs are from a $7 boat trip from Canal Street, New Orleans along the Mississippi river, the Algiers Canal and the Harvey Canal. It was a heavily overcast and humid day - the photos correspondingly low-key and devoid of shadow. It’s striking to see so much decay and dereliction - even the ships are drowning carcasses with flaking paint streaked with oxidisation.  Surprisingly some of them are from the Soviet Union and Iran. Waterside warehouses crumble into the river while fishing boats moulder at their moorings. The most viable economic activity appeared to be servicing the oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico.  This was 1978 - by some measures the high point of the post-war era of universally rising incomes, taxation funded benefits and social care and a shrinking gap between income extremes. Jimmy Carter was in the White House but Ronald Reagan was on stand-by to roll out the great neocon pushback.  Major US cities were sliding into bankruptcy, the drug culture had crossed over into the mainstream and a sense of profound exhaustion seemed to have set in. The stage was set on which Reagan would declare “Morning in America.”

Part of the itinerary was a visit to the Rene Beauregard House at Chalmette, owned and cared for by the National Park Service.  The ante-bellum mansion overlooks the site of the Battle of New Orleans of 1815 in which a smaller, nimbler American force trounced a much larger, belligerent but incompetent British invading force.  Americans have every reason to celebrate this engagement while the British, who swaggered into battle with every expectation of an easy victory were taught a lesson that to this day appears less than fully learned.  A team of Southern Belles in period costume were on hand to explain - they were silent on explaining how the prosperity of the plantation depended on the labour of slaves.

Revisiting these photographs involves a little, lightweight soul-searching.  The question is whether the air of decay was a result of selection on my part, overlooking anything that didn’t fit with my preconceptions. This is where I suspect the influence of David Plowden whose gritty, beautifully composed  photos of the depredations of the industrial landscape in America I much admired.  Instead of looking through my own eyes, I was looking through what I thought were the eyes of Plowden.  All this speculation leads to an uncomfortable place where there needs to be a reckoning with the way that over familiarity with the work of eminent photographers can easily generate a culture of imitation - something I’m all too aware of when I take a hard look at my own efforts. Looking from another angle, perhaps expectations are just too high and the pursuit of authenticity and originality is best left to those with greater ability.  Thanks to the mobile phone there have never been so many photographers on the planet as there are now. As their efforts multiply in the cloud in their millions and billions of images I get no sense of widespread agonising over issues of authenticity and it’s only to be expected that some (or many) of these photos will quite transcend our own in boldness of conception.


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