Jennifer Shaw is a fine art photographer based in New Orleans. Her project Hurricane Story was published in 2011 by Chin Music Press. She is represented by Guthrie Contemporary in New Orleans, and by Jennifer Schwartz Gallery in Atlanta. Ms. Shaw also teaches photography, and is the director of the photoNOLA festival.
Jonathan Blaustein: Did you ever watch the Jetsons when you were a kid?
Jennifer Shaw: Uh-huh.
JB: When you were watching people talking to each other on screens, did you ever think it would happen in your lifetime?
JS: Not really.
JB: And here we are.
JS: It’s my second Skype conversation ever.
JB: Ever? I’m honored that I pushed you to do something new. I just used a bank drive-thru window for the first time in my life. Sometimes technology is scarier than it ought to be. I always thought I was too dumb to figure it out, but it wasn’t that hard.
Do you use the drive-thru window?
JS: Of course.
JB: Everybody had it figured out but me. You are in New Orleans right now, as we speak.
JB: But I saw in your bio that you were born in Indiana, and raised in Milwaukee. So you are a child of the great Mid-West.
JB: What brought you to NOLA?
JS: I graduated from art school. I don’t know if you went to art school, but there’s not exactly some great corporate job lined up waiting for you. It’s more of a decision of where you want to go to make a life as an artist. I always had this fascination with New Orleans. You know, the mystique. The Crescent City.
I decided after one last long, bitter winter in Rhode Island that I was going to move South. I came down here, and here I am.
JB: How long ago was that?
JB: 1994? Old school. I was just in New Orleans for photoNOLA, which all of our regular readers will know. When I do these travel pieces, I don’t have a lot of time to make observations. I keep my eyes open, and talk to people. It works. But the downside is that I’m making judgements based on a really thin slice of reality.
I wrote a piece about the city booming with money and energy and galleries. Putting Katrina in the past. That was a spot observation. I have to admit that I could be really wrong. Just because Mercedes Benz is sponsoring the Superdome…was I rushing to judgement? Or are things doing really well down there, as I surmised?
JS: New Orleans is always a mixed bag. There are parts of New Orleans that are doing really well, but there are still some areas that haven’t fully recovered from Katrina. But culturally, we’re definitely in a beautiful, Post-Katrina boom.
The arts scene is thriving. It’s always been healthy, but especially now. The St. Claude arts district is new. A lot of artist-run co-operative-type things going on. So that’s exciting.
JB: So I wasn’t completely off base?
JS: No, no.
JB: Because that was your opportunity to tell me I was full of shit in my article from a few weeks back.
JS: (laughing) No. I loved your observations.
JB: It’s 2013, so we’re coming up on almost 20 years of you living there. Is this boom unprecedented in your time in the city?
JS: I think so. A lot of the larger institutions have been here for many, many years. The Julia and Magazine St galleries have been here for a long time. But the St. Claude and Downtown scene, where it’s funky and fresh and vibrant, where the artists are starting their own spaces…that’s all pretty new. Post-Katrina.
JB: When I was in town, it was suggested that maybe part of the boom had come from the people who came down to New Orleans to help out after the storm, and then stayed. Thereby bringing in aggressive, fresh energy. Was that something that you noticed? Was it all the government money? What do you think was the cause of the Renaissance?
JS: There definitely has been some “brain gain,” as they say. People who maybe came down to volunteer to help with the re-building, and then just fell in love with the city. There certainly was money flying around afterwards, but I think that’s dried up to some degree. There was a point where there was federal or insurance money, and things felt really hopping. (With lots of construction and renovation everywhere.)
I almost feel like I’m not qualified to answer the larger, institutional-type questions.
JB: No problem. Ladies and gentlemen, while you read this interview with Ms. Jennifer Shaw, you can choose to disregard some of what she says because she does not claim expertise. All right? It’s in the record. You might not be the right person to answer these questions, but you’re on the other end of the video screen, so you don’t have much of a choice right now, do you?
JB: What about the Southern Hospitality? When you first moved South, what was your reaction?
JS: It’s charming, right? Makes you feel right at home.
JB: photoNOLA, as I understand it, is an off-shoot or project of the New Orleans Photo Alliance.
JB: And the Alliance is an artist-run, artist-founded, member-supported community organization, with its own gallery in the Lower Garden District. Is that about right?
JS: Yes, non-profit as well.
JB: When did it get started?
JS: The New Orleans Photo Alliance formed in 2006. Another one of those Katrina silver linings. Don Marshall runs the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, and has a long history of working in the arts in New Orleans. After Katrina, he started calling meetings with different groups of artists, encouraging us to form our own collectives and non-profits. To help resuscitate the arts, and the wider cultural rebuilding of the city.
Out of these groups of meetings with the photographers, we eventually decided what to do, what to be, and the name. One of the things I thought we should do was start a photography festival.
JB: Was that emergence concurrent with the creation of the Photo Alliance, or did it take some time?
JS: It was pretty concurrent; it came out of one of the early meetings. We first met in February or March of 2006. There had been a couple of Mardi Gras-themed group photography exhibitions. You know there’s always a big crowd at a group show.
Everybody came out and was just so thankful to see each other again. Hugs all around. Lots of “How did you make out during the storm?” There was this great energy flowing, and I think Don had attended one of those openings. I don’t know if that was one of his catalysts for getting us together, or if it was a part of his mission to organize lots of different types of artists, and getting us forming these self-sufficient organizations.
I’m totally losing track.
JB: It’s OK.
JS: So there were these two shows, and then a formal meeting is called at the Jazz and Heritage foundation. We decided, yeah, this is a good idea. Why not go ahead and do this?
Start an organization. So we had a series of monthly meetings to figure out what we might accomplish as a group. What sort of form it would take, and what the goals might be. What the structure would be.
By December of that year, we had our first officers, and a group show that started membership. We made it so the entry fee gave you membership into the New Orleans Photo Alliance. That was the beginning of it all. Don hooked us up with an exhibition at the Contemporary Art Center. When he got that plotted, I said, “Let’s take this December show at the CAC, and use it as an anchor to get the festival started.”
I knocked on the doors of galleries and other venues, and said, “We’re going to do a festival. Would you have a photo exhibition in conjunction with our show at the CAC? It’s going to be called photoNOLA, a month of photography.”
So that was the beginning. The first year was just exhibitions throughout the month, but nothing what it’s like now, obviously. (Portfolio reviews were added in 2007.)
JB: I didn’t know that the Photo Alliance came out of the immediate aftermath of Katrina. It’s a really interesting idea, the DIY ethos of artists getting together to do if for themselves. Given how much work it takes to do the business and self-promotion aspects of a career, the idea of getting together to lessen the load, and create the rising tide model, makes so much sense.
Were you the head of the photoNOLA festival from it’s inception?
JS: Pretty much so, yeah.
JB: Now, we both know that there are people who do that job, the Director of a non-profit, and that’s their only job. But on top of that, you also teach photography, and you have a full-time art career, and you’re a Mom.
JB: So you’re trying to juggle everything at once. The 21st Century Hustle. I wanted to hear a bit about the founding of the organization, so thanks. It’s kind of a leading and inappropriate question, but do you think this would not have happened without the storm? Was there a burgeoning sense of collaborative energy because of the Internet anyway? Or do you think this was really a reaction to tragedy?
JS: I think it was totally a reaction to tragedy. I don’t know if something else would have come up in a different form later without the storm. But with Katrina, with everybody being out of the city for two months, and desperately wanting to get home, and desparately missing all of our friends and connections, I think it made us all appreciate people in a way that we never had before. Community ties too, not just in the art world.
There was a whole civic rebirth after the storm, on many different levels. Schools, and community organizations. So Katrina had a lot of silver linings, and the art scene and the Photo Alliance are certainly two of them.
JB: As is your book, “Hurricane Story.”
JB: So there’s that. My house got destroyed in a Hurricane, and all I got was a hard-cover book. Is that a T-shirt yet?
JS: (laughing still.) No. I should clarify, though, my house did not get destroyed. I’m on the sliver by the river, where there wasn’t any flooding. Just wind damage.
JB: Oh, congratulations.
JS: (laughing again.)
JB: I know, it’s seven years later, and I’m saying, “Congrats that your house didn’t get destroyed.” Let’s not give people the wrong impression.
I picked your book up and reviewed it in the very beginning of my book review column. I didn’t know you, or your name, or your work, or photoNOLA. I grabbed the little object off of my stack, and was kind of shocked. I hadn’t seen anybody personalize the tragedy in such an empathetic, but slightly light-hearted way.
Because you used toys.
JB: What was the impetus for telling this really difficult story that way, about your evacuation, and having a baby on the day the storm made landfall? What was the genesis?
JS: I had a Holga that I’d modified into a macro-camera, and I hadn’t done a lot with it. I had some King Cake Babies lying around, and I think one day, I saw one lying around, and it reminded me of…I don’t know. Something just sparked, and I decided to pull out that macro camera and try it on those King Cake Babies, and maybe that’s the way I can deal with Katrina.
I’d taken some traditional disaster pictures, but didn’t feel like I owned that. You know? I felt like I was doing it in a documentary sense, for posterity. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable saying that was my art, or trying to sell that kind of work in galleries. I don’t know.
It was just these King Cake Babies, this macro camera, and a roll of black and white film. It just rolled, and made sense. This is it. This is what I need to be doing.
JB: What exactly is a King Cake Baby?
JS: Good question. Sorry. Every year from 12th Night through Mardi Gras, New Orleanians have mounds and mounds of King Cakes. Inside the cake is a little plastic baby, and the tradition is, whoever gets the slice with the King Cake Baby has to buy the next King Cake. It’s a continuing tradition at parties, and in offices, for weeks on end. We all get really fat. Getting the baby is a special thing, so you tend to collect them. They’re small and plastic, and made in China.
JB: Just like everything else.