“Everything in Louisiana is about layers. There are layers of race, layers of class, layers of survival, layers of death, and layers of rebirth. To live with these layers is to be a true Louisianian. This state has a depth that is simultaneously beyond words and yet as natural as breathing. How can a place be both other-worldly and completely pedestrian is beyond me; however, Louisiana manages to do it. Louisiana is spooky that way.” — Don Lemon, Transparent
The layers to be found in Louisiana are infinite, often spanning vast expanses between extreme poles. From grit to grace. Poverty to wealth. Exuberance to despair, mere feet apart on Bourbon Street. It is this spectrum that makes this place so compelling and culturally rich. It is a natural home for both angels and monsters and everything in between.
I was thinking about the monsters (alligators, to be specific) beneath the opaque black waters when I found myself out on the Atchafalaya swamp at dusk motoring around in a tiny metal boat with Hamilton Hall, a cypress “salvage pirate” and wood-worker extraordinaire. Quite by accident, we moved through a few of these Louisiana layers, swamp style. One minute, the water was glassy – like a beautiful mirror, the watery landscape a gentle rorschach against the sky. The fading daylight had a profoundly transcendent quality to it. Peaceful. And then the sky broke open, unleashing a furious storm. Within minutes we were transported from a state of peace to a state of terror.
Although he is well-versed in all things swamp, the Atchafalaya Basin is not Hamilton’s usual haunt. He tends to salvage cypress near Jean Laffitte and Venice, familiar with every nook and cranny there. The storm grew angrier and the treelines began to lose their distinction as the rain abstracted everything. We were in the midst of a Jackson Pollock caliber rain pummelling. Lightening slammed all around, split-second illuminating blows revealing the frightening sameness of swamp all around. I was clutching a piece of cypress that Hamilton had given to me earlier when he was teaching me about the types of cypress salvage. It is the only thing that made me feel better, out there in the swamp, in a small tin-can boat in a raging thunderstorm.
Eventually Hamilton found the way back. I have no idea how. The next morning the swamp was deceptively gentle again, the water placid and inviting. Come explore some more. This is how my beautiful, complex Louisiana so often reveals herself — a study of extremes, of elegant contradictions. I could photograph this place until the end of my days, and there would still be so much left to uncover, endless mysterious layers to move through.
Changing pace a bit: It’s a curious thing to reflect back on an assignment once it has been published. So many things arise in that process. Every image has a story, and as with all travel, there are some experiences that have no images (like the swamp storm I just described). Recently I read an article in which the act of making photographs was referred to as “collecting trophies.” As shallow as that statement is, there is some truth to it. Photographers collect trophies of moments, places they’ve visited, people they have met along the way. I’ve long considered this all to be a manifestation of existential angst, but that’s a blog post for another day. My point: this assignment, for me, has ended up being about the people I met – the gracious folks who invited me into their lives, lending their hearts and spirits to this story. People give a place its character, which rings especially true in Louisiana. Being based in New Orleans for the time being has allowed many of these folks I photographed to become something else — new friends. A rare benefit of photographing in your own backyard. Here’s a shout out to all of you – my new friends that I met shooting this assignment. Thank you.
And last but never least — a heartfelt thanks to my friend, colleague and neighbor, the inimitable writer Andrew Nelson, who steered and authored this grand adventure. Pick up a copy of the October National Geographic Traveler and read his words — he’ll take you through a few exquisitely described Louisiana layers. Certainly enough to whet your appetite for a visit.