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Katrina: Another View
Text and Photographs by Edward Richards

Photography is not my day job. I teach at the LSU Law School. I did photography back in high school in the 1960s. Those were mainly football pictures with a 4x5 Graphic and roll back. I kept shooting, but professional and family obligations keep my work to personal and family topics, and moves kept me from setting up a darkroom. Digital let me get back into printing but I found that while digital was great for family pictures and vacation shots, I really wanted to get back to serious black and white work. About 18 months ago I put together a hybrid system, based around a 1950s Linhof Technika 4x5, some modern lenses, a scanner, and a good large format digital printer. I shoot 4x5 black and white film (Tmax 100), process it myself, then scan it and work from the digital files. About the time that I had my 4x5 technique up to speed again, Katrina came along.

Baton Rouge, where I live, is about 70 miles north and west of New Orleans, on the Mississippi River. We are well away from the coast, so storm surge and flooding are not issues for us, although we did sustain some limited damage from both Katrina and Rita. As the seat of the state government and the flagship state university - LSU - and the closest major city to New Orleans still standing, we were the center for emergency relief and for refugees. For a few weeks, we probably had 200,000 extra people in a metro area of about 450,000. These included refugees and aid workers. We were all involved in various ways. My wife, a physician, helped a shelter, then organized vaccination services through her employer. All of the physicians saw huge numbers of patients from New Orleans. The LSU law school, where I teach, took in 160 students from the New Orleans law schools that were forced to close.

My own legal work includes disaster preparation and response, as well as public heath. (I do some work with the CDC, Homeland Security, and the Department of Justice.) Katrina immediately posed many professional issues for me, such as levee law, evacuations, marshal law, and other issues related to the Katrina refugee crisis.

While I was busy in Baton Rouge, I kept I close watch on Katrina coverage in the news and in the photography community. I saw two trends: a lot of good news photography and photojournalism focusing on the human side; and serious photographers from out of the area, such as Chris Jordan, who were doing good work in New Orleans, but who, not being familiar with the region, did not venture far out of New Orleans.

As things settled down in Baton Rouge, and security was relaxed on the flooded areas, which was about two months after the storm, I started systematically exploring the entire region affected by Katrina, from Ocean Spring, Mississippi, which is just east of Biloxi, to Grand Isle, Louisiana, which is west and south of New Orleans. What I saw was both amazing and frightening. I started documenting the damage with my 4x5, but from the perspective of a fine art photographer rather than a photojournalist. I soon realized that there was a nexus between my professional work and my photography: documenting the effect on the built environment was a great way to get people to understand the long-term problems that most emergency planning ignores.

Once I saw what the pictures looked like -- and they are a lot more striking as 18" x 24" or larger prints than they are on my Web site -- I realized that this project could stand on its own as fine art photography without having to be tied to Katrina. This encouraged me to continue my trips, and to push in the remote corners of Louisiana that most folks do not visit. For example, there is marshland that extends more than 50 miles east of New Orleans into the Gulf of Mexico. Completely covered by more than 15 feet of water, this is St. Bernard Parish, home to about 30,000 people. This is where I took the picture of the refrigerator 12 feet up in a tree, for example. It is also serious marsh grass area, where you are hiking in grass head high, over unstable mats of debris, keeping your eye out for gators and snakes.

The most severe damage is on the Mississippi side of the Mississippi Louisiana border, on the east side of where the eye of the storm made landfall, and in St. Bernard Parish, which was completely flooded. This is not to down play the damage of the flooding in New Orleans, but the New Orleans flooding was gradual. New Orleans did not suffer from the direct storm surge that put more than 20 feet of raging water into some areas, carrying away the land itself. Fortunately, these areas were much less populated, so while the damage was complete, it affected far fewer people than in New Orleans where standing water caused most of the damage. The exceptions, which I have documented, were the places in New Orleans next to canal breaks, which were swept clean for several blocks.

I continued to travel and take pictures, revisiting several areas such as the 9th Ward in New Orleans as I found more things to shoot, and to get better weather to reshoot some locations. My most recent shots were just a couple of weeks ago, but I think I am probably done with the shooting. I am still working images through Photoshop, and reprocessing the first ones I shot. I try going back to every image a month or more later and to see if I can do a better job with a fresh eye. There are currently about 136 images on my Web site, and I expect to add a few more as I finish processing the last of the scans. The Web site displays both serious fine art images and images that are striking documentation, but not as strong photographically because of adverse weather or physical access problems which limited my ability to get an effective camera position.
 

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