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Exquisite Corpse - A Journal of Letters and Life

New Orleans: An Urban Gallery
A Photo Essay of the Funk of New Orleans

by Ian Duncan Campbell
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As a local New Orleanian, I am documenting the outward visual expressions, often signage, of the colorful, indigenous culture of the city of New Orleans, one of the most unique cities in America.
     New Orleans, or "the Big Easy"is a very old American city, settled in 1718. It has had many influences, but is now predominately African-American (65%). It is a cultural crossroads with a legacy of being a European colonial settlement and a port city trading in everything from cotton, to sugar, to slaves, to culture. This amalgam of cultures has helped the city organically mutate itself into the cultural anachronism that it remains. It is one of the only American cities that retain the "old world feel."
     New Orleans is a "throne of voodoo" which, though practiced by a minority, still lingers like sub-tropical steam which envelopes the spirituality of the city. New Orleans is known as the birthplace of Jazz. With elements of original genius, spontaneity, and creativity, Jazz helped "center"the prudish, stuffy white European culture that was so prevalent at the turn of the century. Jazz spawned a progressive cultural catharsis that is still resonating throughout the world.
     New Orleans is notorious for it’s excesses, with 24-hr. Jazz and liquor and a unique style of "good living." It is a city preoccupied with food and drink and all things "corporeal". There is a certain "traditional wildness" or lawlessness that applies and that makes just about anything possible. New Orleans has a Colonial Caribbean/Creole hangover, demonstrated in vibrant colors, an "imperfectly vertical" decaying aesthetic, and a certain "nihilistic European nonchalance".
     New Orleans is a subtle bouquet, of excess and decay, the sweetest mire, or to quote Charles Bukowski from his poem, Young in New Orleans. "It is a
celebration not of something to do, but only know". New Orleans is the
"House of the Rising Sun". Again, from Bukowski, "it leaves you alone"; it
lets you be what you are.
     Yet, within the life of the city there is also the influence of chaos or entropy. Chaos lingers close to the surface. The city is a font for chaos; it has a symbiotic relationship with it, coexisting together in a dark beautiful dance.
     These photographs depict a "visual jazz" made tangible and born from the same elements: poverty, prejudice, intolerance, and suffering, with a dash of hope, talent, vision and ecstasy. One physical, one ethereal. I think there is a parallel between these "messages" and Jazz music, which are both manifestations of the same creative energy numinating from the city’s rich psychical undercurrent.
     The title is pertinent, in that I took most of these pictures from my car while traversing the city’s many unique neighborhoods. These "messages" definitely exist within their own context of "urban/folk art," or "urban anomalies." It is unfortunate that, as folk art--and because the city is in a constant state of flux, economic growth, and so called "progress"--these classic and often abstract landmarks are in danger of extinction from urban sprawl, gentrification, and the dreaded "yuppie scourge."
     I would also like to add that by highlighting errors or anomalies this project is not meant to demean. It is meant to elevate and celebrate the freestyle tenacity and wholehearted expressiveness of these beautiful multi-racial, multi-cultural peoples and their "messages."
    Perhaps some of the stranger "messages" are some sort of psychic fallout, or debris from the Voodoo tradition, as if the city did not already have enough refuse. They are messages mirrored from the subconscious, created then left forgotten. Whatever your view, these urban anomalies are evidence of an older tradition that has mutated to fit the urban environment. These images from the street are like an urban gallery of anonymous artists, where you never know what you will find. Like a buncha' vines , creepin.
     I guess it is human nature to want to fill in open space with inventions. Just remember the devil is in the details.



Ian is looking for a publisher and has limited edition original prints available. Please click on 'Author's Links' above for contact info.

Click on each image for a larger view

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