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Photos: Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun.
“The Sound of Our Resurrection Is Stronger Than the Silence of Death” is what McCormick and Calhoun call their picture of A Chosen Few Brass Band.

A recent article in Smithsonian magazine about the Louisiana photography duo Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun got me interested in learning more about them.

Reporter Amy Crawford focused on something new they were doing with old photographs: working with the Hurricane Katrina water damage to elicit the ghostly spirit of an indomitable city.

Crawford writes that in 2005, “Hurricane Katrina was bearing down on New Orleans, so Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun packed their photography archive — thousands of slides, negatives and prints the couple had amassed over three decades documenting African American life in Louisiana. …

“Then they drove to Houston with their two children, planning to be gone for maybe two weeks. Ten weeks later, McCormick and Calhoun returned home to…devastation. ‘All there was, was waterlogged,’ Calhoun says. ‘Imagine the smell — all that stuff had been in that mud and mold.’

“They figured they had lost everything, including the archive, but their teenage son urged them not to throw it away. They put the archive into a freezer, to prevent further deterioration. With an electronic scanner they copied and enlarged the images — at first just searching for anything recognizable. The water, heat and mold had blended colors, creating surreal patterns over ghostly scenes of brass band parades, Mardi Gras celebrations and riverside baptisms.

‘Mother Nature went way beyond my imagination as a photographer,’ Calhoun says of the otherworldly images. McCormick says, ‘We no longer consider them damaged.’

“Today McCormick and Calhoun’s altered photographs are viewed as a metaphor for the city’s resilience. Yet they’re also a memento of a community that is no longer the same. By 2019, New Orleans had lost more than a quarter of its African American population. ‘So much is vanishing now,’ Calhoun says. ‘I think this work serves as a record to validate that we once lived in this city. We were its spiritual backbone.’ ” More at the Smithsonian, here.

From the couple’s website: “Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick were born and raised in the lower ninth ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. As husband and wife team, they have been documenting Louisiana and its people for more than 25 years. In New Orleans, they have documented the music culture, which consists of Brass Bands, Jazz Funerals, Social and Pleasure Clubs, Benevolent Societies, and the Black Mardi Gras Indians.

“In addition to documenting New Orleans social and cultural history, Calhoun and McCormick have also covered religious and spiritual ceremonies throughout their community, as well as river baptisms in rural Louisiana. They have created several photographic series, including: Louisiana Laborers; The Dock Worker, Longshoreman, and Freight Handlers on the docks of New Orleans; Sugar Cane Field Scrappers in the river parishes along the Mississippi river; Cotton Gins, and Sweet Potato Workers in East Carrol parish of Lake Providence Louisiana.

“Calhoun and McCormick have documented the soul of New Orleans and a vanishing Louisiana [including] the displacement of African Americans after Katrina … and the cruel conditions of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola, a former slave-breeding plantation named for the African nation from which ‘the most profitable’ slaves, according to slave owners, were kidnapped. …

“[Angola] is an 18,000-acre prison farm where inmates are traded like chattel among wardens of neighboring penitentiaries. Although the 13th Amendment to the United States Constitution abolished slavery in 1865, its prohibition of forced labor does not apply to convicted inmates. … Calhoun and McCormick’s work restores visibility and humanity to a population often forgotten by the public at large.”

And from the Southbound Project: “The photographic emulsion merging with mold and water sedimentation left interesting patterns and color transformations. … Sometimes the textural quality of the effects even suggests physical markings and scars of trauma. Ida Mae Strickland (1987, ca. 2010), for example, is a portrait of an elderly woman shown from the waist up, seemingly lost in thought with a furrowed brow. She appears contemplative and dignified, as one whose internal strength has carried her through the years. The water damage creates rippling patterns that appear to emanate from her head and evoke wrinkled folds of aged skin. These unintentional effects reinforce qualities of the original image. The photograph, like the original sitter, has quietly weathered the influence of time and nature but still survives.” 

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