New Orleans through the eyes of Lewis Watts

La Nouvelle-Orléans, New Orleans had been inhabited by the Chitimacha people until its discovery in 1718 by the French Mississippi Company’s Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne de Bienville. The Region was named after Philippe d’Orléans, Duke of Orléans. Over the years New Orleans has emerged as an amalgam of diverse cultures, French, Creole, Irish, German, African, Spanish and more. This ethnic mosaic has frequently lead to tensions between those syndicates, fueling escalating racism that still persists today, but it has also created an incredibly rich tapestry of culture that permeates its music, food, dance and people.

Photographer, UC Santa Cruz associate professor and social documentarian Lewis Watts has been photographing the people of New Orleans for over a decade. His work has documented a New Orleans culture, both pre- and post-Katrina. This work is soon to be published in a book entitled “New Orleans Suite” co-authored by Lewis’s colleague Eric Porter. An exhibit by the same name is on display at the Sesnon Gallery, UCSC. This exhibit of his portraits of the people of New Orleans and Cuba runs through Nov. 21.

I visited Lewis at the Sesnon Gallery as he was unpacking his photographs to talk about Cuba and New Orleans.

Kirby Scudder: What was the allure of Cuba as a subject?

Lewis Watts: Cuba has been on my list for a long time of places I wanted to go to. It has a number of factors that I’m really interested in, not the least of which is that it is a place that to some degree has been isolated from the world, it has architecture that is frozen in time and it’s unique history. A few years ago someone in Cuba said to me you better get here soon, Castro had stepped down and the future was uncertain. I had made a personal vow to myself, that I wanted to go to Cuba before McDonalds did. So, in December of 2010 I traveled to Cuba for the first time.

KS: What was your experience before and after Katrina?

LW: I had been photographing the people of New Orleans for years. When I arrived on my first trip after the storm, only about 10 percent of the population was still there and that was six weeks after Katrina. New Orleans has always interested me as a subject, geographically and architecturally, but it was really the people and culture that interested me and of course after the storm they weren’t there. That trip I photographed intently for 10 days and then had to leave, I had disaster fatigue.

KS: How did “New Orleans Suite” come to be?

LW: The book is co authored by my colleague here at UCSC, Eric Porter and it’s funny we both started teaching in Santa Cruz the same year, in 2001. Eric’s people are from Louisiana. When I started, teaching in Santa Cruz I did a lecture at LSU in Baton Rouge, La., and at that time I was able to travel to New Orleans two or three times a year from 1994 until about 2005. In the Fall of 2005 I did the Artists in Residency program at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. “New Orleans Suite” is really about New Orleans before and after the storm, the storm being a frame of reference. It’s not really about Katrina.

As I rode my bike down from campus, I kept thinking about Lewis’ frequent comment “It’s about the people.” For more information, got to: art.ucsc.edu/galleries/sesnon.

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