|Floodwaters inside Donn Young’s home rose five feet and did not recede for weeks. [ 1 of 4 ]|
To know what it means to miss New Orleans
INTRODUCTION BY ARIANE WILTSE
Over the past two years, I watched earlier FlyIns students tone their prints and hammer out their stories as I awaited my turn. When that turn finally came, I planned to use the opportunity to work abroad with professor Kaplan and my fellow students as basic training for an eventual career as a foreign correspondent.
So, when I asked to go to New Orleans instead, I did so with regret.
For the first month of the semester and for weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, I researched story ideas in Belize along with my classmates. I found evidence of rich yet disappearing cultures and desperate social issues plenty of fodder for compelling journalism. And yet, nothing fit.
Between my 24-7 cocktail of CNN, Fox News and The Weather Channel, I needed some beauty in my life. I secretly planned to do a fluffy little story on butterflies.
That is, until I watched a New Orleans benefit concert while grading papers one Saturday night barely a week before we were scheduled to depart. In addition to the soul-rending music, comedians Bill Cosby and Robin Williams spoke with such fervor, I laughed between my tears. I doubted I could write a story that would make anyone laugh, but I knew I had to write one that would capture the beauty of the city and the people I love so dearly.
Although I was neither born nor bred in New Orleans, I like to say I grew up there. During the six years I lived in the city, I learned how important it is to give of one’s self especially when I’ve been so blessed.
I moved into a shotgun on the cusp of the French Quarter shortly after I finished my undergraduate degree. And soon thereafter, I started teaching photography to inner-city kids at St. Mark’s Community Center. It was through my work at the center that I met DonnYoung and his wife Sue.
Young invited my class of precocious middle school students to visit his photography studio. Once we arrived, it became apparent, however, that Donn wasn’t particularly interested in talking photography. Instead, he wanted to talk business. Specifically, what it’s like to own a small business. He later said that it was highly unlikely any of the kids would make a career out of photography. Therefore, he hoped to instill the belief that they too can become their own boss.
I was so impressed, I showed up a week later with my first pathetic portfolio and asked for a job.
For the next three years, the Youngs and their staff at the studio became my surrogate family. They listened to my problems. Gave me rolls of film and stacks of paper when I was too broke to buy my own. And they fed me. Sue Young bought lunch for her staff every day. And on those late-night shoots, my mentor fed me oyster po-boys and sushi. But most importantly, when my liver shut down, and I was too sick to work, The Youngs drove me to my doctors’ appointments and continued to pay me.
So when Hurricane Katrina washed away their lives, I knew I had to return.
I waited until noon on the Sunday following the benefit concert to call Professor Kaplan at home, which gave me ample time to practice my speech. The strategy was to unload every bit of information before he had a chance to say no. Yes, I had a way to get past the military road blocks and into the city, and yes I had a place to stay once there, and yes I had lots of great story ideas, and …. But he cut me off.
“Ariane,” he said. “Yes. Of course. You have to go.”
Picking up the pictures:
STORY BY ARIANE WILTSE
Donn Young sits in the mess hall, his back against the wall. He has nowhere to be. Nowhere to go. And no one to talk to. The only other man still living on the Navy ship goes home on the weekends. And the cook, he left a week ago. So Donn begins yet another meal of canned vegetables and canned tuna. Alone.
When he comes home to the ship each night after work, he’s left to think. He thinks about a successful life before this life on the ship.And he thinks about his city.
“New Orleans is actually worse now,” he says. “Everything is decaying. It’s this slow, lingering death.”
He needs to get off the ship. After two months, it’s beginning to get to him. The isolation from his family. The lack of camaraderie amongst the few men who still come to eat during the day. The void of human contact after the sun sets and curfew goes into effect. But where to go?
Across his 10-person table and beyond the porthole, lays the Mississippi River and the New Orleans skyline. His work along the river may keep him in the city. But it is his photographs that keep him sane.
* * *
Like tens of thousands of other New Orleanians, Donn Young lost close to everything to Hurricane Katrina. His home. His family business. And for the time being, his family.
While his Lakeview home and photography studio wait to be demolished and his wife and kids try to carry on in a small Alabama house, Donn remains in New Orleans. There he holds on to the one part of his former life he may just save his photographs.
Donn’s photos capture the New Orleans he hopes will resurrect as well as the New Orleans he’d like to finally see put to rest. From the celebrity kings at Bacchus’ Mardi Gras parades to the shady riverboat casino alliances of incarcerated former Governor Edwin Edwards, Donn’s photographs encompass the gumbo New Orleanians call life.
With the help of a team of archivists from Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, as much as 40 percent of the 1.3 million photos Donn has shot may be saved. The university has deemed Donn’s work “historically significant,” and over the past two months archivists have begun to salvage the remnants of his former library.
In exchange for LSU’s efforts, Donn agreed to waive the rights to his photos.
“I’ve always been willing to donate work,” he said as he signed the legal agreement. “I just didn’t think I’d have to give up my life’s work.”
* * *
In the 35 years Donn has worked as a photographer, he only rejected two assignments. When David Duke decided to run for governor of Louisiana, a men’s magazine called Donn up and asked him to do a day-in-the-life photo essay on the former Ku Klux Klan leader.
“I turned them down,” he said. “I knew they’d just give the assignment to someone else, but I didn’t want to be a part of fueling the David Duke campaign. Any press, positive or negative, he benefits from. You have to cut the throat of the beast.”
More recently, Donn turned down an assignment the day he and his family were preparing to flee Hurricane Katrina.
A photo researcher at a news wire called him, the first time in more than a year and said, “Donn, how’s it going? Listen, you’re our man. We want you to cover the storm for us.”
Donn later said, “I asked the woman, ‘Oh really. I haven’t heard from you guys in over a year, and let me get this straight, you want me to stick around for a Category 5 hurricane for a $150 a day? Are you doing to insure my equipment? Are you going to provide health insurance? Are you going to help me get my family to safety?”
Rather than cover the storm for a fraction of his typical $2,300 day rate, Donn fled to Tuscaloosa, Ala. with his family. They never left for a storm before and weren’t planning to leave for this storm either until Sue, Donn’s wife and an avid animal lover, had a talk with a squirrel.
She had taken the dogs for a walk in the neighborhood when she saw the squirrel in a tree.
“The squirrel told me, ‘Sue, I’m leaving, and you better too,’” she said.
“Thank God she didn’t see another bird,” Donn later said. “Last time a hurricane came, a bird told her he was staying.”
After Donn and his family packed up the car with enough clothes to hold them for a long weekend, Sue stopped by the studio. They had already hoisted the lowest shelves containing Donn’s work to higher ground and wrapped the library in thick, black plastic, as they do for every storm, but Sue needed to pick up one last thing.
“I had to grab the photos for the wedding albums I’d been putting together,” she later said. “Those people probably think all their photos were destroyed, but I’ve got them.”
Donn stayed with his family for the first four days after the storm. When the Port of New Orleans reopened, he returned to his second job documenting the traffic on the Mississippi River. He hasn’t seen his wife or children since.
“Some days are OK, but most are hard,” Sue said. “Donn and I have been separated for two months. We used to live and work together.”
* * *
Donn and Sue are old friends of mine. Not because we go back decades or because they’re graying, but because our friendship is based on a mutual respect and commitment. We walk in when others walk out.
I met Donn and his family about five years ago when I was teaching photography to inner-city kids at St. Mark’s Community Center. He invited my class of precocious middle school students to visit his photography studio. The studio resembled a three-ring spectacle. Phones rang. No one answered. Donn hollered for his prints. Sue ignored him. Neighbors stopped by to gossip. Tracy, his assistant for more than 10 years, booty danced to the music in her head. And Cory, Sue’s best friend and the studio secretary/comedian, imitated Donn pontificating. Everyone talked and laughed and cussed, and no one listened to Donn. Although it’s his name on the family business, Donn was rarely in control. His life and his business were run by three head-strong women.
Within minutes of arriving at the studio, my class of tough-guy teenagers, many from the Iberville Housing Project, were giggling. Tracy gave the kids a tour of the darkroom and shot their portraits, but Donn wasn’t particularly interested in talking photography. He wanted to talk business. Specifically, what it’s like to own a small business. He later said that it was highly unlikely any of the kids would make a career out of photography. Therefore, he hoped to instill the belief that they too can become their own boss.
I was so impressed with the antics and the attitude at the studio, I showed up a week later with my first pathetic portfolio and asked for a job.
For the next three years, this batch of New Orleans characters became my surrogate family. They listened to my problems. Gave me rolls of film and stacks of paper when I was too broke to buy my own. And they fed me. Sue bought lunch for her staff every day. And on those late-night shoots, Donn fed me oyster po-boys and sushi. But most importantly, when my liver shut down, and I was too sick to work, Donn and Sue drove me to my doctors’ appointments and continued to pay me.
So when Hurricane Katrina washed away their lives, I knew I had to return.
* * *
The plane on my return trip to New Orleans was full. From the patois, I could tell most people were returning home. Everyone was dressed to work, in jeans and T-shirts and boots. Not one suit on the plane.
As we descended over Lake Pontratrain, with the skyline in clear view, activity in the cabin halted. People leaned in close to windows to see, many undoubtedly for the first time, what remained.
It felt odd, even antiseptic, watching people mill about their business inside the airport. It was hard to imagine just a few weeks earlier bodies of the dying were laid to rest with the dead in baggage claim.
When Donn picked me up, he looked older than I remembered. His face appeared ashen and heavy, his eyes distant and the weight that settles on the waist in mid-life, gone. He struggled to smile.
We went immediately to the warehouse storing his photography. And there, in a small air-conditioned room off the side of the warehouse, sat tubs and tubs of the same foul sludge that blankets the city. What remained of Donn’s life work soaked in those tubs.
The tubs reeked of biological decay after a chemical disaster. Rotten eggs in a toxic swamp came to mind. Or a pig farm next door to Chernobyl.
Donn salvaged a couple dozen black and white photos from his studio. Before the flood, he considered the prints rejects. They were lying on a cluttered work bench when the storm hit. He figures they floated.
Some were unscathed, but most had a surreal distortion. The sliver bled, creating swirls of black and grey and white. Many had finger prints along the edges from being handled while wet.
As Donn laid the prints out on a dusty countertop, he said, “When I saw my work, I was just thrilled at how the decay affected the prints. You scratch them up a bit, and you get a whole different look.”
The prints were a teaser, an attempt to give Mark Martin, a curator at LSU who had come to survey Donn’s work, a sense of what soaked in those tubs. Mardi Gras Indians, second line parades and brass band weddings, jazz funerals and jazz icons like Danny Barker. Mark was impressed. He scribbled pages of notes while Donn retold the story of his 35-year career.
Mark promised to come back the next day with a flat-bed truck and a team of strong, young men to haul the work back to LSU. As we walked to back to his car he told me “we as a culture can’t afford to lose Donn’s work. I don’t want to see it end up on the side of the road.”
* * *
When Donn first returned to New Orleans, he figured everything was lost. He planned to get a full-time job wherever he could and focus on putting his kids through college.
But before he gave up on his photography, he made a desperate call to Pam Cousté, the director of Records & Archives at the Port of New Orleans and an old friend.
“Pam,” he said. “I don’t know who else to call. My studio is gone. My house is under water.”
Pam immediately got on the horn to Rob Perry, the president of the New Orleans chapter of the Association of Records Managers and Administrators (ARMA), an international non-profit association of archivists. Rob then put a message on the organization’s listserv. Within a day, 90 people offered to help salvage Donn’s photography.
Wanting to help, and being able to help were, however, two very different things. Logistical problems soon erupted. Who would pay for these people to travel to New Orleans? And where would they stay? How would they eat?
“Numerous people wanted to help,” Pam said. “But all these crises kept happening, and they couldn’t help.”
The other problem: Where do you put, what later amounted to, more than 80, 50-gallon tubs of foul and toxic art in a city where more than half of the buildings suffered catastrophic damage?
Donn was in charge of finding a truck to haul the work out of the studio and the muscle to move it. Pam would worry about where to put it later.
The Port donated three trucks, and the maintenance crew volunteered to help. The Louisiana-based Kentwood Springs Water Company donated 250 gallons of distilled water to soak and, hopefully, preserve the work. And the New Orleans chapter of ARMA donated $1,000 to buy the tubs to store Donn’s archive. But even getting the tubs was a challenge. Pam had to drive to Baton Rouge and Covington to find them. The few stores that were open in Southeast Louisiana were bare.
And then… Rita hit.
By the time the crew got into the studio, it had been close to three weeks since Katrina. The studio was flooded for the two weeks following Katrina, and Rita set the recovery effort back another four, valuable days, Pam said.
“Mold, humidity, toxic sludge, time all that contributes to the destruction of materials,” she added.
After all the setbacks and frustrations, Pam finally found someone willing to donate space. Kathryn Smith, a member and past president of the New Orleans chapter of ARMA, said Donn could store his work in her empty warehouse in Jefferson Parish.
The Monday after Rita, Donn and Pam and six people from the maintenance crew, three from ARMA and a film crew from NBC News busted the corroded studio door open. Clad in the kind of protective gear that makes people look like astronauts, the team sloshed through the remaining ankle-deep water. They dug stacks and stacks of negatives and slides out from under overturned furniture and fished random prints from the muck.
“It was as bad as I expected,” Donn later said. “But worse than I hoped.”
As the film crew documented the three-hour process, a reporter interviewed Donn.
“He kept saying, ‘You’ve lost everything. How does it feel?’” Donn later said. “I wasn’t going to go there, cry on camera.”
* * *
As Donn and I drove through Jefferson Parish after our coffee-house strategy session, Donn talked about his plans to direct a 1 ½ hour long documentary on the history, the culture and the art along the Louisiana stretch of the Mississippi River for the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium. But I could barely listen. It was all too surreal.
And yet, Jefferson Parish appeared oddly normal. Most businesses were open. Traffic bustled and traffic lights worked. Aside from some downed trees and a few boarded-up buildings, it was hard to tell that the nation’s worst natural disaster had just skirted the area.
When we entered the city, everything changed. The ancient and lofty oaks that once shaded Esplanade Avenue from the mid-afternoon heat lay in tatters like brittle, little skeletons. Power lines dangled in the middle of once-busy streets. Mounds and mounds of duct-taped refrigerators and water-logged furniture laid next to abandoned RTA buses in the neutral ground.
“People stole them,” Donn said when he caught me starring at the buses, “and drove them until they ran out of gas.”
At every major intersection, camouflaged military stood guard with fingers on their machine gun triggers. Cheap, copy-store business signs popped from the toxic earth advertising “Smokey’s Debris Removal” or “Big Nacho’s Hurricane Recovery.”
And for miles upon miles, home after home after business after business remained covered in brown flood lines and spray-painted in red Xs a military rescue code. Triangles indicate bodies.
As we drove through the wreckage, Donn asked, “What are you doing?”
“Pushing a pressure point on my arm,” I replied.
“It’s supposed to relieve stress.”
A few minutes later, Donn said “You’re being awfully quiet.”
“Just taking it all in,” I replied.
“You have no idea how much better the city looks from just a week or two ago,” he countered. “There are people here now life. And women. Do you know how long it’s been since I’ve seen a woman who wasn’t in fatigues?”
“And another thing, the streets are clear,” as he drove around a military road block, over a power line and then continued “that’s always fun.”
“There were bodies in the streets, dead bodies,” he said. “There was one over there near that garbage heap for almost two weeks. Someone spray painted ‘Rest in Peace.’ See?”
* * *
When you return to your flooded former life, it’s important to know what you’re going in for before you enter. Otherwise, you forget as soon as you pass the threshold. The memories flood back, and you can’t think clearly. You grab things that can never be decontaminated like a child’s one-year baby book. And sometimes you just stand in the middle of your home and stare.
“No matter what I think to get out,” Donn said, “when I get there, I simply forget.”
But you don’t have time to forget. Even with a face mask, the black mold takes hold of your lungs within 20 or 30 minutes. And the toxins unleash their foot soldiers across your throbbing head. You become agitated, disoriented and broken. This is why you never go in alone. Like a high-altitude climber, you need someone to watch your back, to reel you in when you become unreasonable.
Donn had been in his house once before I arrived with a stranger. A Department of Transportation officer gave him a lift and waited while he salvaged his father’s gold watch and Sue’s wedding band.
Sue’s birthday fell a couple days after he dug her ring out of a heap of muck. So, he cleaned it off, put it in an envelope and mailed it to her.
“I thought it was ironic that the first things two people have together when they get married are their wedding rings,” he later said. “After 24 years of marriage, that’s all Sue and I have together.”
* * *
From the outside, Donn’s home, a post-WWII cottage, looked old and neglected as if its owners left it for dead long ago. Now grey, maybe even a tad jaundiced, its white paint sagged under brown flood lines like wrinkles in an old woman’s face. And its manicured lawn had become rheumatic, creaking with each step.
Donn keeps vigil at Sue’s childhood home. Death is the neighborhood. Next door. Across the street. Three blocks over and around the corner. Everywhere homes are dying.
And yet, standing before the little house it’s easy to think the old gal doesn’t look that bad. Sure, she’s a bit disheveled. A winter-time version of her former self. But her head is intact and all four limbs appear sturdy enough and her eyes, her eyes are clear. Not one’s broken. No need to bring in the bulldozer.
But then you step inside.
Donn and I went in through the back door. The front was supposed to be locked, but when we got in we noticed her mouth agape, pried open by rescuers.
Walking through the house felt like navigating a macabre labyrinth. Only a fool would touch anything without heavy-duty gloves. Every surface posed a health hazard in waiting. And yet, it was next to impossible to walk through the house unmolested. Toppled-over and toxic furniture blocked every step, as if some giant had picked up Donn’s house with his bare hands, turned it upside down and given it a good shake.
The same sickly green, fuzzy mold that crept up walls in the studio covered every detail. The remote control lying on the kitchen counter covered. The hand-crocheted afghan still folded neatly on the living room floor covered. And the blankets on the master bed. Everything everywhere.
“This must be what the Titanic would have looked like,” Donn said “if they had raised it from the sea.”
* * *
Donn moved to New Orleans from Massachusetts in 1980 when his editor started an alternative art and entertainment weekly called Figaro in the Crescent City. A few years later, while on a Christmas assignment for Figaro in Jackson Square, he met Sue. He asked for her number, but she told him if he really wanted it, he’d have to get it from someone else.
A few weeks later, he spotted Sue again. This time at a private party for the Rolling Stones. He told her his car had broken down, and he needed a lift. Again, she turned him down.
“She said she had to go home to watch Hawaii Five-O,” he said. “So she left me and Mick Jagger because she never missed a show.”
After Sue ditched him a second time and Figaro folded under funding issues, Donn decided it time to leave New Orleans. Car packed, he made one last lap around the French Quarter. But Sue spotted him.
She and a friend were having dinner in a French Quarter restaurant when she saw him pass. She ran down St. Peter’s Street, chasing behind his car until he stopped.
“That night I took Sue back to my apartment,” Donn said. “And a few years later we started a [photography] business and a family, and we’ve never been separated since until now.”
Six months after their French Quarter rendezvous, Donn and Sue married. And a few months later, they opened their first photography studio. From that day in 1982 until Katrina hit, Donn and Sue have worked with and, at times, around each other. Donn handled the art and Sue the business.
They guess at least 50 people worked with them over the years, from fellow photographers who rented space in the studio, to secretaries, interns and others they simply refer to as “friends of the studio.”
Donn and Sue often hired high school and college-age budding photographers as assistants. They said it was their way to contribute to the education of their city’s youth.
All those people who came and left for bigger dreams contributed more than just their time.
“Everyone who has come through the studio has touched us,” Donn said. “The success of who we are is based on those people.”
Over the 25 years Donn ran his studio, he shot hundreds of weddings and thousands of portraits. He also freelanced for local newspapers such as the Gambit Weekly and City Business as well as national news publications like Newsweek, Time and The Washington Post. He’s photographed every president since Regan as well as the political and social elite of New Orleans. But he’s most proud of his work with nonprofit organizations.
On one assignment, spanning two years in the mid 90s, Donn traveled across the U.S. documenting the Volunteers of America’s various social programs.
One portrait during this period still burns.
“This guy had been sitting in a wheelchair all his life,” Donn said. “All he could do was pick his chin off his chest. I went over and started talking to him, and I asked to take his picture. He gave me the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. The nurses said he’s never smiled in the years he’s been [in the nursing home].”
But Donn considers his portrait entitled “Desire Madonna” among his most important images. In the black and white image, a little girl stands in the doorframe of her roach-infested and crumbling daycare center in the former Desire Housing Project. Her decrepit surroundings, however, aren’t what haunt the viewer. It’s the look in her eyes. She stares through the camera and through the viewer with a look that says she’s seen too much and has already begun to shut down.
This photo “underscores why I do what I do,” Donn said. “It shows how human beings allow other human beings to live.”
In addition to copiloting the assignments that came through the studio, Donn has worked as the official photographer for the Port of New Orleans since 1996. At the Port, he documents the riverboat traffic up and down the Mississippi, incoming and outgoing cargo along the waterfront and visiting politicians such as President Bush.
Donn continues to document activity along the river in hopes his photographs will help spearhead “Louisiana back into the global marketplace.” Meanwhile Sue, her mom Wanda and Donn and Sue’s 21-year old daughter Max, named after Sue’s favorite cat, and their son Casey, 19, live in Tuscaloosa where Max is a student at University of Alabama. No one, aside from Donn, has returned home since Katrina.
* * *
Day after day for the week I stayed in New Orleans, everywhere we went people who knew Donn commented on his optimism. Here’s this guy who lost everything, they’d say, and still, he gets up at 6 a.m., goes to work and kids around with his buddies.
“If I was living in a shelter on a cot, I wouldn’t have the same optimism,” Donn said. “Those people have it a lot worse. I have a place on the ship and a job and a family. Even so, you get hit with these walls all the time. Then you get an e-mail from a friend or family member, and it just makes you stronger.”
“As an artist, you are always working in the face of criticism. The only way to protect yourself and both positive and negative criticism can do you in you have to develop an ego that allows you to believe in yourself and to dismiss the positive or the negative as you need. That ego has to protect me from the devastation that’s around me.”
Again he stopped.
With a look in his eyes that said he was back at the studio toning prints, or home grilling tuna steaks for his family, he added, “I think that’s what I’m doing.”
* * *
Five days after a team of volunteers delivered Donn’s work to the little air-conditioned room off the side of the Jefferson Parish warehouse, the warehouse owner called Pam Cousté. People were complaining about the smell, and new tenants were moving in. Donn had two days to move his work. She threatened to sue.
Exhausted and broken, Donn almost gave up.
“I couldn’t move it again,” he later said. “We didn’t have anyone to move it or any place to move it to. I had run out of favors.”
Pam had her own problems. Four pine trees landed on her house during Rita, destroying her roof. And she was a week away from gall bladder surgery.
Neither Pam nor Donn knew anyone at LSU, but they did know they needed “deep pockets and a staff willing to save this stuff,” Pam said.
So, she phoned the Special Collections Department in LSU’s Hill Memorial Library, and Mark Martin answered the phone. Through her frantic sobs, she begged Mark to save Donn’s work.
Mark said he was interested, but he had to talk to his boss. Pam told him they only had two days. Mark said he’d call back in 30 minutes.
* * *
When people ask Mark what he does, he tells them “I read dead people’s letters for a living.”
Rarely does he work with materials from a living person.
The day after Mark hung up with Pam, he showed up at the warehouse. And after our coffee house strategy session, he drove back to Baton Rouge, picked up his co-worker Elaine Smyth and they brought a bottle of wine to their boss’ house. They had some convincin’ to do.
It wasn’t that Faye Phillips, the associate dean of Libraries for Special Collections at LSU, didn’t believe Donn’s work was valuable. She just didn’t believe it could be saved.
But the night before Mark and Elaine showed up, Faye had a dream she was in New Orleans rescuing stray dogs.
“Well, we went to New Orleans,” she said. “But we didn’t rescue stray dogs.”
When Mark and Elaine showed up at her house, however, she hadn’t given the dream much thought.
“I knew I was going to have to say no,” she said. “I have faith in my people, but I had to be the bureaucrat because I really didn’t think it could be saved.”
It took a couple glasses of wine and a lot of discussing, but by the end of the night, they had changed Faye’s mind. The next day, Mark and his team of strong, young men Faye and Elaine showed up at the warehouse to finally move Donn’s work to safety.
On the ride back to LSU that night, Mark and I got to talking.
“Photography is ubiquitous,” he said. “Everybody has a camera, so it’s not as valued. But, in an emergency, the first things people want to take aside from their jewelry are their photographs.”
* * *
Saving Donn’s work continues to be difficult. While archivists from Houston to Venice have salvaged water-logged artwork and rare books for decades, previous floods lasted a few days not weeks, and the water was relatively clean.
A recovery effort of this magnitude “has never existed before,” Faye said the morning after they brought Donn’s work to LSU. “We’re inventing this as we go.”
As Faye and Mark and Elaine and about a dozen other people at LSU got busy unloading, washing and often pitching Donn’s work, they quickly decided the best way to tackle the immense project was to take an assembly-line approach.
Decked out in protective glasses, face masks, plastic smocks and black, industrial-strength gloves, Faye, Mark and Elaine did the dirty work. They unloaded the sloshing tubs from the truck, hoisted the wretched smelling work out of the tubs, separated the destroyed work from the damaged and dunked what remained in a series of three clean-water tubs. Donn’s work was so polluted, the clean water quickly turned toxic and had to be replaced after every batch.
While Faye submerged crates of negatives from one tub of fresh water to another and another, she talked about Donn’s work.
“Didn’t he photograph the politicians? The first black mayor of New Orleans? Didn’t he photograph the buildings? Didn’t he photograph the commercial community and the Port? He is our record keeper. Our documentarian. He may not be the only photographer in New Orleans, but we don’t know about the rest. We are trying to save him.”
As the work progressed, a pattern immerged. For the most part, the black and white negatives looked good. Images were discernable, and when pulled from the sludge, they didn’t bleed.
Color posed a problem. Most had turned into a sulfuric mush, and little could be saved.
At one point, Elaine found a three-ring binder full of Mardi Gras Indian color slides. They too were mush. As she flipped through the pages, we felt that rich Louisiana culture dripping down the drain just as fast as the emulsion on those slides.
Mark spoke first.
“Whining and cussing seems appropriate,” he said. “NO, YOU STUPID …. Please.”
Every now and then, however, someone in the group came across a stack of 35 mm color prints or slides with little or no damage. They figured the stacks were trapped in an air pocket under the weight of the flood.
When Mark found such a stack, I said “Too bad they’re just party shots.”
Faye quickly corrected me. “It’s OK that they’re party photos because we don’t have any left. We need to remember that we had parties that there was something to party for.”
* * *
LSU’s efforts to salvage Donn’s photographs have stalled. While the remnants have been cataloged and stuffed into heavy-duty freezer bags and placed in the library’s industrial-sized freezer, there they wait to be roused from their hibernation.
Money is part of the problem. But manpower is equally lacking. From rare theological books to the flamboyant hand-sewn and beaded Mardi Gras Indian costumes, some of New Orleans’ most cherished work was damaged in the storm. The archivists at LSU are simply overwhelmed.
Even so, Faye and Mark and Elaine have begun the grant-writing process. They recently submitted a proposal to fund the digital restoration of Donn’s work to the National Endowment for the Humanities. So far, no word.
While Donn waits for the next chapter at LSU to unfold, he has begun work on a 1 1⁄2 hour long documentary entitled “30 Days and 30 Nights.” Donn conceives working closely with local artists from poets to painters to retell the story of the history, the culture and the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina along the Louisiana stretch of the Mississippi River.
The folks at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium flew Donn to the river town of Dubuque, Iowa last month to discuss funding the documentary. The museum has already set aside a $115,000 grant to partially fund the project, but Donn expects the project needs an additional $300,000 to $500,000 to become a reality.
Donn envisions using archival photos from the Port of New Orleans and the Historic New Orleans Collection, among other organizations, during the first third of the film to focus on the historical significance of the river. In the second part, he plans to use news reels and National Weather Service satellite images to chronicle the timeline of the storm.
The most creative aspect of the film, or what Donn refers to as the “meat of the project,” comes at the end. Here, he plans to mirror FDR’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) “to bring Louisiana artists back and put them to work.” He hopes to do this by interplaying interviews with Louisiana residents along the river with artistic interpretations of their stories by Louisiana musicians, photographers, painters “whoever we can find who’s still around.”
For example, say the documentary crew interviews a farmer in Southeast Louisiana who lost his entire cattle herd to the storm. Rather than create a re-enactment of the scene, the crew would hire, say, an illustrator to work with the farmer to create a drawing from the farmer’s memory. Then in post-production, editors would dissolve from the interview with the farmer to the drawing of his memory while he continues to reflect on his experience.
“By the time we’re finished,” Donn said, “we will have created a film about the lives of the residents from the Mississippi Delta in Louisiana, but we will have done it in a very human way. Not in a sensational or exploitive way.”
Donn may have a difficult time finding people to work with, whether they are artists, writers, musicians or farmers. According to a recent article in the New Orleans-based weekly City Business, close to 90 percent of the city’s musicians remain outside the state. Writers, artists and farmers aren’t coming back any sooner.
Donn is a realist. He understands “half the town is gone, and it’s not coming back anytime soon. And the people who have quotes are going to forget them. If they haven’t already, they want to.”
And yet, this project consumes him. It gets him out of bed in the morning and helps him drift into sleep each night. For Donn, the film represents a personal and social revival. The history. The culture. The art. All must be preserved. And the thread that binds these human elements together continues to be the river.