Forget The Wreckage: Museums' Katrina Shows Look At How City Has Moved On

Willie Birch DrawFish

Willie Birch's Crawfish Dwelling is made from one of the many crawfish homes that Birch found in his backyard after Katrina.

Courtesy of Willie Birch and Arthur Roger Gallery


Anniversaries call for exhibitions, and art museums across New Orleans felt compelled to remember Hurricane Katrina as the 10th anniversary of its landfall approaches. But the anniversary shows at some of the city's most high-profile museums seem surprisingly understated, at least to outsiders' eyes. In fact, they barely seem to be about Katrina at all.

"I didn't know that's what it was," says one baffled tourist when he's informed he's in the middle of a Katrina-related show called "The Rising" at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Evan Smith of Birmingham, Ala., looks around at photographs of gay teenagers, Latino migrant workers and oil refineries. "I didn't know that, no," he says.

Curator Richard McCabe knows his showcase of the city's up-and-coming photographers doesn't exactly scream Katrina. He tells a group of students, "I was a little worried about doing this because I wanted to do something about the 10-year anniversary but there was no way I could go back and relive it through photographs because they were just too painful."

McCabe, who moved to New Orleans just before Katrina, ruled out so-called disaster porn for "The Rising." That meant no wreckage, no waterlines and no people trapped on roofs.

"The tourists would love to see those pictures," he says ruefully, "because a lot of people think half of New Orleans is still underwater, you know?"

McCabe curated this show for a city with a long and illustrious history of photography. Back in the early 1900s, photographer E.J. Bellocq documented New Orleans' brothels. (His career was later fictionalized in the movie Pretty Baby.) Today, New Orleans' photography scene is more vibrant than ever, according to McCabe. He wanted to take control of the imagery with a fresh exhibition that shows how the city sees itself now.

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