Photographer set out for Latin America, was dazzled by New Orleans

Richard Sexton’s adventure in Latin America begins and ends in New Orleans.

Maybe it was a fluke, considering that Sexton was looking for a travel adventure, but one that didn’t cost too much. He was a student at Emory University in Atlanta with aspirations of becoming a photographer.

Plane fares were expensive and the thought of lugging bulky camera equipment onto an airplane was daunting. This was in the 1970s, long before the minimizing magic of digital technology.

So, Sexton recruited two friends for the trip, loaded up his car and took off for Latin America by way of New Orleans, a fun city he’d always wanted to visit.

But New Orleans became something more, a preview of Sexton’s six-month experience traveling Latin American countries, one that would stay with him years down the road, resulting in the book “Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere.”

The Historic New Orleans Collection published the coffee table book in early April and opened an exhibit featuring Sexton’s photographs on April 15, in the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art, 400 Chartres St.

The show runs through Dec. 7, and features more than 50 of Sexton’s photos capturing the architectural and urban similarities in Haiti, Columbia, Argentina, Cuba, Ecuador and, of course, New Orleans.

“New Orleans is often hailed for its distinctive Creole heritage — evident in its food, architecture, and people — but it is far from alone,” the collection states in its book description. “Its Creoleness may be unique to the United States, but New Orleans is part of an entire family of Latin Caribbean cities with similar colonial histories.

“Founded as New World outposts of Old World empires, these cities forged new identities from their European, West African, and indigenous influences — by turns inspired by, in defiance of, and adapted from all of them.”

The book also includes an introduction by J.D. Edwards, along with an essay by John H. Lawrence, the collection’s director of museum programs.

“The idea of the book came years later,” Sexton says. “Everyone knows the adage about New Orleans being the northernmost Caribbean city, but no one has done a book about it before now.”

Sexton worked as a photographer in California before making a permanent move to New Orleans in 1991, living first in the French Quarter and now in Faubourg Marigny. He spent 38 years making trips to Latin America after his initial college adventure.

“I describe myself in the book as being America’s laziest expatriate,” Sexton says, laughing. “I’m relying on a collective memory for this book. I did this book for New Orleanians. There aren’t that many actual photos of New Orleans in the book, but this book is for everybody who has ever visited or is from the city. There’s a memory of place when you show something similar from another place. People recognize it.”

He’s right.

Open the book to any page, and readers will see buildings they will associate with New Orleans. Sometimes the resemblance is so close that readers will have to check twice.

That’s Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop on page 22, right? Wait, on second glance, it’s a street scene at rues C and 13 at Cap Haitian, Haiti. And though the photo certainly looks like New Orleans’ Greenwood Cemetery on page XV of the introduction, it’s a photo of Cemeterio Santa Cruz de Manga in Cartagena, Colombia. Then there’s a true comparison of houses on New Orleans’ Esplanade Avenue and the Vista Alegre neighborhood in Santiago, Cuba.

They could be standing side by side in the same place, but maybe not the same time. Many of New Orleans’ structures are well-preserved; the Creole buildings in other countries suffer from decay brought on by time, nature and lack of attention.

Still, sometimes the architecture in the worst shape tells the best stories.

“I wasn’t going about this project like a sociologist or historian would do,” Sexton says. “When I would see something that would remind me of New Orleans, I would take a picture. The architecture in some of the oldest neighborhoods doesn’t meet modern preservation standards, but on the plus side, none of these buildings have been willfully torn down.”

The old neighborhoods to which he refers originally were built for the wealthy in the Latin countries.

As often happens in big cities, the buildings evolve into less affluent residences.

“Ordinary people live there now,” Sexton says. “And some buildings have been repurposed for other things, which is a poignant situation topic for my photos.

“The book is about the struggles, hopes and history going on in these areas. It’s a broader swath of human endeavor. I photograph scars, not wounds. A scar is a mark of survival, and I saw a lot of scars that reminded me of New Orleans.”