Two plastic king cake babies inspired fine art photographer Jennifer Shaw to self-publish a book about her experiences fleeing Hurricane Katrina.
“Hurricane Story,” a collection of 46 photos and titles, describes the birth of her first son and the two months she and her husband took leave from New Orleans.
The book depicts different stages of Shaw’s journey, using plastic toys to illustrate each scene. Shaw collected, arranged and photographed the toys over 18 months on 115 rolls of film.
“I was nine months pregnant and due in less than a week when Hurricane Katrina blew into the Gulf,” she explains on her website at http://jennifershaw.net. “In the early hours of Aug. 28, 2005, my husband and I loaded up our small truck with two cats, two dogs, two crates full of negatives, all our important papers and a few changes of clothes.
“We evacuated to a motel in southern Alabama and tried not to watch the news. Monday, Aug. 29, brought the convergence of two major life-changing events; the destruction of New Orleans and the birth of our son. It was two long months and 6,000 miles on the road before we were able to return home.”
Shaw used the king cake babies to illustrate the feeling that while displaced she had to care for two infants — her newborn son and her sometimes-impatient husband.
Though she is generally known as a black-and-white darkroom photographer, the intricate customization Shaw made to the tiny toys led her to choose color film for her modified Holga camera, which she describes as a “toy” camera.
“Most of my work is created using toy cameras,” she explains on her website. “These simple plastic devices lend a whimsical spontaneity to the act of photographing.”
Three hundred and fifty copies of “Hurricane Story” were first released in 2007 through Lulu, an online self-publisher, but it was re-released last year by Chin Music Press, which printed 3,000 copies.
“I just wasn’t sure how I could throw down thousands of dollars to move these books out into the universe,” Shaw said. “By the fifth anniversary, we thought it was do or die. It had to happen right now or it wouldn’t happen.”
The process of pairing images with phrases was organic for Shaw, requiring her to weave words with the “visual candy” of her art, and the task became an exercise in minimalism.
Shaw grew up in Milwaukee and studied photography at the Rhode Island School of Design. “In pursuit of the artist’s life,” she moved to New Orleans, where she teaches “the disappearing art of darkroom photography” at the Louise S. McGehee School, according to her website.
Her photographs have been published in B&W Magazine, Shots, Light Leaks Magazine, Oxford American, The Sun and The New Orleans Review and exhibited internationally and held in public collections, including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.
Shaw began working on “Hurricane Story” after seeing photographers release images from Katrina and the aftermath.
“There were ethical issues being raised when these photographers who weren’t from New Orleans began taking photos. I felt ownership until I realized that this is my city, but it wasn’t my neighborhood.”
With a new desire to share her own storm story, Shaw needed a way to recreate scenes from her travels.
“I hadn’t photographed along the way, and it would’ve been too real.” she said. “I wanted to tell my story in my medium, and I had to get creative to retell it this way, rather than use the real people and events.”
Shaw explained how self-publishing brought her intimacy and intensity in her work, and the collaboration required to produce a book was a new experience that brought her art into the literary world.
“The self-publishing route is a very valuable tool for an artist’s growth,” she said.
“This is really the first time I’m delving into this vast stack of images to create a new body of work,” she said. “It centers on my kids, but it’s not necessarily about childhood.”
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