NEW ORLEANS — In 1982, Henry James Jr. was arrested for a rape he did not commit and sentenced to life in prison without parole in America’s most brutalizing prison – the Louisiana State Penitentiary, better known as Angola, a name passed down from its days as a slave-labor plantation. DNA evidence exonerated James and he was released in 2011, having served nearly 30 years, for nothing.
I spoke with Mr. James at the Contemporary Arts Center here at the opening of Labor Studies, a gathering of 102 photographic portraits — including photographs taken in Angola — by the artists Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick. As he told me his story, I had expected to hear moral outrage. But his self-possession and clarity as he related the ordeal only threw into starker relief the barbarism of Louisiana “justice.”
And James’s story exemplifies the larger American crisis represented by Angola. McCormick and Calhoun’s photography attests that, though slavery was officially outlawed in 1865, its de facto continuation remains a repulsive American secret.
The couple’s group portraits show Angola prisoners transported to work fields as if they were merely equipment, piled together in hitched carts, or marching in the hot sun with hoes or mattocks as white guards on horseback keep a rifle at the ready. Elsewhere, inmates are “employed” as rodeo performers to entertain a largely local white audience, a grotesque tradition that dates back decades here.
Such obscene violations of basic human dignity stand out most viscerally in this wide-ranging exhibition. Calhoun’s candid portraits taken inside Angola’s walls show men crammed into cells that seem no larger than the average public urinal, or forced to live in sprawling dormitories that resemble refugee camps, gruesome compounds that, I was told, have become even more overcrowded in recent years.
But as “Labor Studies” also demonstrates, the couple’s wide-ranging community of subjects extends well beyond Angola. Their prolific portraiture has been smartly curated into six sections corresponding to their subjects’ employment or social activity — sugar cane and sweet potato harvesters, unionized dockworkers and day laborers, hospitality and restaurant workers and domestic caretakers — along with images of Mardi Gras Indians, brass bands, street dancers, and Sunday church groups. Their portraits are nothing if not kinetic, and they capture this city’s ‘round-the-clock energy, a force that takes on a life of its own.
The story the images tell is, at first glance, quite simple, forming a tapestry revealing the living conditions of working-class life in contemporary New Orleans. But their affective beauty and collectivist ethos show an American reality absent from the over-curated, individualistic delusions that pass for cultural self-representation these days.
Now that political earthquakes have, one hopes, woken this country from its neoliberal stupor, it’s no coincidence that the art world is taking overdue notice of Calhoun and McCormick’s community-oriented portraiture. In 2015, their photographs were spotlighted in Venice Biennale, and their works are now in the permanent collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. And Labor Studies is just one of their recent museum exhibitions. Earlier this year, The Frist Art Museum in Nashville featured their work in Slavery, the Prison Industrial Complex: Photographs by Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, which is currently on view at Art + Practice in Los Angeles. Next year, the exhibition will enjoy an extended run in the Hillard Museum at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette.
Despite the art world attention and critical accolades, the couple remain dedicated to the local. Having been born and raised in this city’s Ninth Ward, they maintain an open studio here and often teach local youth the art of photography. Hurricane Katrina not only affected the couple’s body of work, but left its imprint on their very images. Having evacuated during the storm’s onslaught, Calhoun and McCormick returned home to find containers filled with negatives floating in the floodwaters. On advice from a friend, they froze the negatives, an effort that proved fortuitous. Scholar Susan Edwards describes this salvage process in her study, Louisiana Medley (Frist Center for the Visual Arts, 2018):
The prints they made from the negatives contain shadows of previous images overlaid with imprint of mold bloom. Colors from the original Kodachrome film separated, migrated and printed off register. By coopting degradation on the negatives, Calhoun and McCormick embraced the enduring evidence of the harsh ramifications of the storm on New Orleans.
That accidental damage and the abstract effects achieved in the imagery’s development underscore how the couple views photographic art as integral to the context within which it is created. Art is, after all, a situational act of manual labor. And as well-paying manual labor becomes more of an endangered species in this city and in countless others, many of these portraits double as eulogies to bygone employment and vanishing worker solidarity.
In particular, Keith Calhoun’s photographs, drawn from his 1981 Riverfront Faces Series, depict teamwork in its purest state. Dockworkers are caught in indirect light and the haphazard shadows of the loading docks as they perform their backbreaking tasks. They are silhouetted inside a tractor trailer, piling huge sacks around them, or standing resolute beneath a container’s metal overhang, or staring beyond the frame during a brief pause.
Here and elsewhere, the spontaneous, and shared energies testify to the participatory presence of Calhoun and McCormick as they live and move among their subjects. In an essay contained in Louisiana Medley, McCormick writes, “I am on both sides of the camera when I shoot because I’ve lived through the same suffering or experienced some of the backlash of living in the Deep South.”
Against the grain of much contemporary photography, which normalizes and commemorates detachment and alienation, the art of Calhoun and McCormick gestures toward community-building and social perseverance. They do this by framing their subjects in ordinary interactions and in common intimacies — child musicians or dancers gearing up for a local march, working women unwinding with drinks around a card table, or multigenerational families, dressed in brilliant white, gathered on sun-drenched streets before and after Sunday services.
Even in the individual portraits, their pictures map relationships and reveal a rootedness — a pride in human company and immediate spaces that seem like ways of life from a long-lost era. In one deceptively simple photograph of a hotel maid, the Latina woman is seen near a door opening to a freshly cleaned room. Her facial expression communicates unperturbed satisfaction and her pose conveys a sanguine strength that derives from what used to be called “honest work.”
Similarly, in Chandra McCormick’s image of sugar cane worker Joyce Priestly, her subject’s stoicism lends the portrait a timeless aura. Priestly cradles long, freshly harvested stalks in her arms, her stillness and poise harmonizing with the unfiltered sunlight against her face, illuminating her work clothes and spilling all over the sugar cane crop towering behind her.
The most moving, and at times unsettling, of their works are the intimate photographs taken at funerals, including jazz funerals, a throng-filled ceremony in which mourning meets defiance and searing private loss dissolves into raucous public celebration. The attendees follow the hearse, saying their final goodbyes, and, as the expression goes, “cut the body loose.”
Throughout Labor Studies, a social fabric is woven by the portraiture, even as those pictures burrow into private lives to unveil personal histories and complex faces caught in ambiguous or transitional moments. In one such portrait, a mother adjusts her children’s clothing as her two young offspring gaze at the viewer from their bare-bones wooden porch. In another group portrait, five female field workers stand with their backs to the photographer as they move, separate yet together, each hidden under a different sun hat as they harvest the sugar cane, their bent-over bodies integrated into the low, sun-saturated horizon.
A group street portrait features a young boy, Troy Andrews, nicknamed “Trombone Shorty,” confidently playing his instrument, which is so large it nearly dwarfs him, while the children gathered around him watch in charmed awe and innate admiration. The adults in the scene, meanwhile, are partially visible presences, mere half-silhouettes looming above
There is a welcome absence of self-conscious theatricality in Calhoun and McCormick’s subjects. Sentimentality, that uniquely American malady, is also absent. These portraits make toil and exertion visible, and despite the dignity and satisfaction they express, they remind the viewer that togetherness in and of itself does not redeem suffering or undo the physical toll of grueling labor.
The magnitude of the artists’ achievement at consolidating and mapping community is best appreciated in light of how stacked against civic and public life our current national and local policies are, facts I relearned when I visited their home studio in the Ninth Ward.
The ever-present threats to their way of life may have a definitive local inflection, but they are familiar to any precarious working-class neighborhood in this country: long-gone waterfront jobs and well-paying day labor, wiped out by globalism, agribusiness, and technology-driven shipping practices. And then there are the blights of the increasingly for-profit prison industry, warehousing a largely African American inmate population; charter schools backed by private foundations that enrich middle managerial overlords by decimating neighborhood-based public education; and real-estate land grabs fueling runaway gentrification that ensures an ongoing African-American diaspora in this city’s post-Katrina “comeback.”
Into those headwinds, through their acumen and candor, Calhoun and McCormick show that poetic modernist photographers can be, and perhaps should be, socially conscious and engaged participants in their civic life. In a cultural climate rife with bloodless art-as-agitprop, their portraits deliver art as embodied news that stays news: these are the inner and outer lives of contemporary Americans, many descended from indigenous people killed or driven away from this fertile region near the Mississippi Delta, or brought here at gunpoint to work against their will. They are the people whose labors built the original infrastructures that gave rise to this vibrant, wild city, and, not incidentally, the people who built our nation’s foundations, including those forced to build the mansion in DC where the current President — that whiny, lazy white supremacist — lives.
Labor Studies continues at the Contemporary Arts Center (900 Camp Street, New Orleans, Louisiana) through February 10, 2019.