Monday, July 5, 2010

Dispatches from a Disaster continued.... Some Say Character Develops in Darkness

One Gulf Coast Photographer
Looks at the Ordinary
to Fix Place into Art

By Paul K. Haeder

“It was absolutely fascinating to me. It was like being in the darkest of Africa… alligators, palmettos and Spanish moss. I tell you, it really grabbed a hold of me. To me it was pure adventure, I loved it.” — Fonville Winans about his early days on Grand Isle, Louisiana.

For photographers of any ilk, the place is the making of the artist. For one Upstate New York transplant, the Gulf of Mexico is now in his photographic DNA.

For fine art photographer Matthew White, 43, the Gulf Coast has inoculated him from any sort of jaded look at the world. Originally from New York, White moved south, from Binghamton (vis-à-vis Boston, with a degree in music under his belt), first to Richmond, Va, in 1990 where he played in and toured with the rock band, Mile Zero.

From 1993 to 2003 he worked for National Public Radio, was a music producer and played in dozens of bands while in Athens, Ga. He also photographed.

It was the move to New Orleans seven years ago where his status as “a fish out of water” allowed him to understand the discordance and syncopation of this place that is, for White, a paradise of American music, American South. “Music comes from this city that couldn’t come from anywhere else … the blues, Cajun … it’s a language unto itself.”

White’s shutter bug started on his 16th birthday when he got his first single lens reflex 35 mm camera. Then, he was waylaid artistically by Joel Meyerowitz, who made Cape Cod famous in his minimalist way, conveying “a silent, powerful beauty to his images … so much so that you have to step into the photos to understand them.”

He steeled himself for the lifelong project of photographing wetlands and beaches, fishing communities leveled by time, and now, oil. All of that coast and cultural ground is being changed by the British Petroleum blowout of up to 150 million gallons of oil, and counting.

Now White continues in the blustery tsunami of toxic waters and wind whipped up by the incompetence of BP and all the other agencies cowing to the worst of the worst in the oil business. His viewfinder, he admits, is the convergence of dead animals and the goo of formerly white beaches turned bituminous.

He has his favorite places, and like a scientist looking for the formation of a larger frame from which to test a theory, White goes back to spots, replicating the same angle and depth of field, to plot the swirl of color and shadow.

“I’m able to see how this place changes over time, over seasons. I want people to feel what I’m feeling,” White said in a phone interview while readying himself for more Grand Isle and marshland photo shoots.

It’s not about trickery of lens, digital manipulation or “going for the emotional jugular,” White insisted. He wants us to see what he sees, and he’s quick to criticize the high drama being demanded of him and other photographers now that the Gulf is in the international limelight. “Wide angle shots, I understand the technique. To get in real close to these people. I don’t want to use a tool as blunt as a camera to pry into people’s lives.”

He saw the same sort of photojournalistic techniques employed after Katrina. He insisted on photographing the land, the raw structure of New Orleans after the storm upheaval altered land use, time, and memory.

We’ve been able to capture some of White’s words in both a radio interview and photographs of the unfolding effects of oil. He’s going to be a semi-regular call in on Tipping Points: Voices from the Edge, on KYRS, as I’ve devoted air time and writing space to continuing the coverage of the Gulf Coast.

White’s admonition is for the story not to fade away, and he’s both impressed and thankful that Spokane, through myself and Marc Gauthier, is interested in Grand Isle and the plight of the fishers, both human and non-human.

He’s gracious to acknowledge the work of predecessors, and White’s large sweep of photographic history is impressive, and the perfect underpinning for the work he is now undertaking to make sure the truth is presented, illuminated, considered.

The death of the Gulf has been a quick process over the past 90 years, but White has seen some profusion of elegant beauty in bursts and spurts over the more than 18 years he’s been photographing here. He harkens back to Fonville Winans, who chronicled for more than 50 years this region’s human, cultural and natural life.

Winans came to the Gulf Coast as a construction worker. Then onto Grand Isle specifically, and with that first camera, a Kodak 3A camera for which he bought on a whim and other gear, Winans captured governors, other politicos and the enduring diverse and quirky world of the Gulf Coast.

Selling three continuous works of photographic elegance is White’s goal. He’s got one project, “End of the Great River, ” chronicling lower Plaquemine’s Parish, where the greatest river in the U.S. unfolds into the Gulf. “What is it, half a million people a year visit that little pond in Minnesota [Lake Itasca] that is the source of the Mississippi. You’d think the same number of people would want to see its end point.”

Another book follows years of photographing in and around Cameron Parish. The third one is “South Florida Unseen,” a book of photographs “tracing the Everglades watershed along the line where man stops and nature begins.”

The images are stark in their beauty and editorial thrust. “Florida has been developed block by block,” White said. “All of a sudden it just stops and there it is, the Everglades. There’s a sadness and loneliness in [the photographs].”

He uses the allusion of a street, Southwest 360th Avenue, just disappearing into the sawgrass. “It represents broken dreams. It’s fascinating, really, how all that unfolds.”

It’s a collection no one else has, White insisted. And it’s still not done, and he needs the money to get charters and guides to access “a damned dangerous place … where you can get a leg bit off, or drown, die of a snake bite … or just get lost in a boat.”

For now, White photographs the soiled Gulf but plans to get to those last angles and landscapes. He’s tiring of all the requests for shots capturing “the drama of the oil.”

“I’d like Anderson Cooper to call up and ask for some of the photographs of this area before the oil spill,” White said. “Yeah, all the shots of the BP oil spill are forcing people to react, I know. But what would they think if they could actually see the beauty of the land, what could be lost forever?”

Photographer: Matthew D. White

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