The Peace Museum rescues the work
of two New Orleans photographers
When husband-and-wife photography team Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick returned home to the Lower Ninth Ward for Mardi Gras this year, it was like a family reunion.
“Mardi Gras was always a time—even for people who [moved away]—to come back. People want to come home, you know?” says Calhoun, who had to relocate to the Houston area with McCormick after their house was leveled by Hurricane Katrina.
But when the couple arrived in Chicago on Mardi Gras night for the opening of their “Soul of the City” show at the Peace Museum in Garfield Park, it was like a reunion, too. “When I walked into the exhibit, I was tearful…this was the first time we had seen so much of our work in so long,” McCormick says. “We’re very thankful.”
Calhoun and McCormick dedicated their time to capturing vibrant scenes from predominantly African-American areas of New Orleans: folks popping their heads out of their front doors, laborers, musicians, jazz funerals. And while they stored their negatives in Rubbermaid bins before they fled, they came back to find much of their work waterlogged or missing. A story in the Houston Chronicle inspired Peace Museum executive director Melissa McGuire to invite the couple to hold what would be their first exposition since the disaster. The photographers sent what negatives they could to a Chicago photo lab, which produced more than 50 images in time for the February 28 opening.
While they estimate that about two thirds of their work was destroyed, McCormick says, “We got a little bit of all the New Orleans culture.” Like trumpeter Kermit Ruffins with banjo player Danny Barker in Louis Armstrong Park. Trombone virtuoso “Trombone Shorty” is pictured playing about ten years ago, when he was a 13-year-old prodigy. Many images show how Mardi Gras was celebrated in the black community—including older women “masking” in baby-doll dresses—and how Native American and African cultures were integrated in intricate costumes that colored the streets.
What you won’t see a lot of is McCormick’s beloved sugar-cane worker portraits, which, ironically, were the focus of the couple’s work. “These people were being displaced [by technology] before Katrina; it was vanishing then,” Calhoun says.
There are just a handful of the couple’s post-Katrina photos, including one of the remains of their home and studio. Motioning to an image of a huge uprooted tree, McCormick says, “This photo basically symbolizes what happened to our community.”
The couple is undaunted. On their recent trip to New Orleans, they shot festivities for Vibe magazine, and Spike Lee interviewed them for his film, When the Levee Broke. They’re seeking out a lab that can restore extremely water-damaged negatives—and they will be moving back home. Two housing nonprofits have offered to rebuild their house. Despite their hardships, McCormick and Calhoun are still full of life. After the opening, the museum’s McGuire took them to see Ivan Neville, son of their longtime friend Aaron. McGuire laughs, “They sure can dance.”—Leah Pietrusiak
"Soul of the City" is at the Peace Museum. See Around Town. To donate to restoration efforts, visit www.architectureforhumanity.org.