Faces of Tremé: Art etched by history, disaster

Photo exhibit at the McKenna documents changing Tremé

Photo provided by Chandra McCormick -- 'The Shop'
Photo provided by Chandra McCormick -- 'The Shop'

Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun have lived behind the camera lens for nearly 35 years, both as photography griots and as husband and wife with a distinctive vision.

“Faces of Tremé,” an exhibit at the McKenna Museum of African American Art, depicts the pageantry and symbolism of one of America’s oldest cultures and one of New Orleans’ most vibrant neighborhoods.

“It is a depiction of life before Hurricane Katrina,” McCormick said. “It’s about a community of people, a neighborhood, a close-knit family of people. Musical families came out of this community.”

“(Our photographs) are about a place before gentrification,” Calhoun said, pointing to a crisp black-and-white of the Benjamin family who had lived in Tremé for 90 years in the same house.

“It was about the flavors of love and being a community,” McCormick said. “This was the stronghold; these people were the pillars.”

Calhoun and McCormick believe the photographs are important because the city has changed, yet remains true to itself through respect to tradition.

The exhibit shows the scars that McCormick and Calhoun’s art suffered in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There is reticulation, mold stains and the cracks of ice crystals, formed when the couple gathered their precious negatives and stuck them in the freezer to stop further deterioration.

In one photo, storm damage became art as the film’s colors struggle to shine through moisture and heat. It’s not difficult to pick out a young Trombone Shorty in the background of a second-line as girls parade in pink, but his presence is heightened when he appears through a Tri X film wash and water stain that inadvertently place another impression on the print.

“The images live and are beautiful. They are crystallized right there. This is why the work must be cherished — (we) can’t go back and catch that moment again,” Calhoun said.

McCormick talked about one of her favorite photos, “The Shop,” which also was damaged in Katrina. She noted that music mentors such as Tuba Fats, Jesse Hill and Dr. Michael White would play and instruct young musicians in a cramped location on Gov. Nicholls and Marais streets. The negative was quite damaged, but McCormick felt the scene was so important, she had to print it, come what may.

“The water just brought the work to a whole new level. When we froze the negatives, it also captured the moment in time of the damage, which is another layer of documenting the culture,” Calhoun said.

McCormick said their work has begun to look like paintings.

“It’s been transformed,” she said, referring to the art and life in Tremé.

McCormick and Calhoun were introduced by friends in 1977 when McCormick needed her picture taken.

Calhoun looked at her in mock-amazement: “I’ve been with you that long?”

Calhoun remembers asking McCormick if she would like to see how photos were developed and taking her to his darkroom.

McCormick laughed: “Typical guy line, right? But I was so fascinated that I asked him to teach me and I became his printer.”

She made contact sheets and prints, bought and processed film. “And from there, I developed an ‘eye’ and my (photographic) vision,” McCormick said.

Calhoun said, “Chandra was always committed to the work. Other women may have been materialistic, but she was buying film and chemicals. Photography is an expensive medium. She was very dedicated in keeping the energy going. She had the passion.”

McCormick and Calhoun praise the elders in Tremé. They say the exhibit is dedicated to them and the community.

“A lot of the history is dying out. Those streets were full of people, folks sitting on stoops. Live music. Little people have been there fighting for a long time,” Calhoun said. “This is just the beginning of what we have on Tremé. …”

“Faces of Tremé,” curated by Dr. Deborah Willis, a photographer and professor at New York University, is open through Jan. 26 at the George and Leah McKenna Museum of African American Art, 2003 Carondelet St., New Orleans. The exhibit is organized in partnership with the L9 Center for the Arts in conjunction with the Seventh annual Photo NOLA festival with support from the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation.