chris bickford – death, rebirth, and celebration in new orleans

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Chris Bickford

Death, Rebirth, and Celebration in New Orleans

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The city of New Orleans lies at the swampy bottom of of the largest watershed in North America, and the top edge of the most hurricane-prone inland sea in the Western Hemisphere.  It is, at once, an epicenter of trade, transportation, and cultural ferment; and at the same time probably one of the worst places to build a city one could ever choose.   The same waterways that brought people, goods, and cultural influences from France, Spain, Cuba, Haiti, Britain, Ireland, the American West, the American South, the heart of Africa, and all of Europe, also brought the threat of epic floods and hurricanes, yellow fever and malaria, and conquest from every nation eager to hold the mouth of the great Mississippi River in its dominion.

New Orleans was built on high ground in the middle of a swamp, the only truly viable land in the area being the natural levee that had built up along a bend in the river (the “Crescent”) as it passed close to Lake Pontchartrain, a large brackish estuary that provided a faster and safer route to the Gulf of Mexico than the treacherous, shifting delta that faced cargo boats heading to the Gulf via the last 100 miles of the Mississippi.   Between the crescent and the Lake lay another strip of high ground, an ancient Indian portage route which the French named Esplanade Ridge.   It was on these mounds, surrounded by swampland, that the city, named after a notoriously decadent French Viceroy, was built.

It has been almost 300 years since then, and in that time New Orleans has survived three regime changes; disastrous floods, fires, and epidemics; times of great prosperity and times of dramatic financial depression.   It has endured racism, white flight, urban blight, and gentrification.  It has seen the establishment of several Big Oil headquarters and their subsequent abandonment.   It has seen its hometown NFL football team suffer losing season after losing season, until their dramatic Super Bowl victory in 2010.  It has watched as engineers and developers pumped out the swamp water adjacent to the ridges and built vast neighborhoods on soggy, below-lake-and-river-level ground.  And it has seen these neighborhoods flooded and destroyed twice, first from  Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and and then from the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It has seen the murder rate soar in its poorest neighborhoods.   And it has seen, through all of this, the strange and beautiful fermentation of a whole host of ethnic influences that have made New Orleans one of the most culturally significant cities in the world.   There is no city that compares to New Orleans in the sheer depth,  range, and complexity of its musical and cultural heritage, which remains a living, breathing, continually evolving way of life–and serious business for New Orleanians. New Orleans is, hands down, the funkiest city in the world.

It also has quite possibly the most complex and confounding history of race relations of any city in the United States.   From the Free Blacks of Color who played an integral part of the city’s commerce and culture for over 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamaton, to the Sunday gatherings in Congo Square where blacks both slave and free were given the day off to dance, sing, share news, and exchange goods, to the Post-Reconstruction takeover of the segregationist White League, to the repressive Jim Crow era, straight up to school integration and the White Flight of the 1960′s… from the institutionalized police brutality of 20th century to black Mardi Gras Indians leading a procession at the inauguration of white mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010- race relations in New Orleans have swung from some of the most liberal to some of the most reactionary in the country, and back again.  Walk the streets of New Orleans today, and you can feel the same tension.  Whites, blacks, and other ethnic groups tend to occupy different neighborhoods and keep to their own, but those neighborhoods are so close to each other that interaction is second nature to the city dwellers.  And though there is plenty of racism and fear to go around, the boundaries are easily melted with a smile, a handshake, and an attitude of mutual respect.   The music and the street life bring people together.  There is violence, there is poverty, there are glaring inequities.   But in New Orleans, even the richest uptown houses look just a little run-down, and even the poorest black man can build himself a perfect suit of beads and feathers and dazzle the world when the Mardi Gras Indians come out to strut their stuff.

And through it all, there has been the Mardi Gras, the Carnival celebration imported from Europe, that, as history tells it, was first celebrated in Louisiana on March 3, 1699, by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, on a campsite on the east bank of the Mississippi River, which he named “Pointe du Mardi Gras.”   From the beginning it was a multicultural affair.  On March 20 the local Houma Indians welcomed Iberville and his men into their village and treated them to a formal celebration, with dancers and drummers wearing body paint and fur headdresses and sashes of painted feathers.  The party lasted all day and into the night, in classic Carnival fashion: naked, painted and adorned revelers singing, dancing, and drumming their way into ecstasy.

Mardi Gras has undergone many transformations since then, from the raucous Creole street-parties of the eighteenth century, to the Protestant takeover in the mid-1800′s by “Rex, King of Carnival”, who sought to tame Carnival by establishing rules and creating secret WASP societies, or “krewes”, which staged elaborate parades through the city…then, to the hippie revolution in the 1960′s, when all hell broke loose on the streets…and all the while parallel carnivals went on, the “Carnival Noir”: the Carnival of the Mardi Gras Indians, the Carnival of the brothels and the Baby Dolls, the Carnival of the Skull and Bone Gangs- who would walk the streets at dawn on Mardi Gras Day, dressed as skeletons, waking up the living and the dead, and the Carnival of Zulu, the largest and oldest Social Aid and Pleasure Club in New Orleans, whose inclusion into the otherwise exclusively white roster of Mardi Gras Parades–and whose self-parodying traditions of coconuts, blackface, and grass skirts–sparked a controversy that exists to this day about the portrayal and inclusion of African-Americans in predominantly white American culture.

These photographs, taken in 2010 and comprised mainly of New Orleanians participating in a year-round roster of traditional festivities, dance nights, and costume balls, are presented not so much as documentary images of everyday life in New Orleans, but more as symbolic meditations on the cycles of death, rebirth, and transformation that New Orleans has undergone, and continues to undergo in its tragic, dramatic, fascinating, funky, strange, and beautiful history.

In New Orleans, the dead seem to lie just a little closer to the living.  Its cemeteries, or “cities of the dead”, are scattered about the city, mazes of above-ground tombs which were found necessary to build once it was discovered that bodies buried in the swampy ground would only rise to the surface after heavy rains.   Many of its old houses are considered haunted, and “Ghost Tours” are a popular tourist attraction in the French Quarter and other parts of the town.  News of shootings are common headlines in the Times-Picayune newspaper, and the sound of gunshot can occasionally be heard at night between the rumble of passing trains.   Nothing, however, has compared to the death-blow the city was dealt when Hurricane Katrina swept through in 2005, leaving in its aftermath a broken city, a mass exodus of generations-old families, and a glaring exposé of race-based poverty that still has not been addressed by the state or federal government.  But somehow New Orleans has managed to survive through it all, and to laugh in the face of death with its Carnival dance of Devil-may-care abandon.  At Mardi Gras time, at Halloween time, and on funeral days and Sundays throughout the year, New Orleans still puts on its high-stepping second-line shoes and dances its way through the streets and alleyways, celebrating life that is all the more sweet due to its fragility and unpredictability.

Five years after Katrina, New Orleans is on its way back. It is a slow rebirth, and brings with it changes that are in some ways positive and some ways not so positive.  But during my time in New Orleans, I heard the same story over and over again; countless people had heard the siren-call sent out by a desperate city, came to help out, fell in love with the place and its people, and never left.  So while the city works diligently to encourage the return of its diaspora, a new New Orleans is being born… perhaps not the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams or Andrei Codreiscu, perhaps not the New Orleans of Fats Domino or Louis Armstrong…but still a New Orleans of pride and revelry, a New Orleans of artists and free-thinkers, and a New Orleans that cherishes the crazy funky stew of culture that makes it one of the greatest and most interesting cities in the world.

This March 8 will mark the 313th Mardi Gras since Bienville’s first celebration with the Houma Indians at Pointe du Mardi Gras in 1699, and the sixth Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina.  May the sun shine warm on the merry revelers of New Orleans, and don’t, don’t, don’t stop the Carnival.

Note: Special thanks goes to Federica Valabrega, who assisted on this project and held the light in many of these images.   Federica’s essay, Daughters of the King, was published on Burn in the fall of 2010.



Chris Bickford is a freelance photographer based on the US East Coast. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Outside Magazine, Surfing Magazine, and various other national and inter-national publications. His photographic essay, After the Storm: A Life of Surf on the Outer Banks, was first published on Burn in 2009 and has been showcased at a number of exhibitions and photography festivals since then. Among various other projects, Chris is working on a long-term exploration of Carnival celebrations around the world, which was the impetus for his 2010 residency in New Orleans. This year he will be in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.

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Chris Bickford