• October 22, 2015

Warped and Waterlogged, a Damaged Photo Collection Takes on New Life

Becky Harlan

“Anywhere you go, when you see disasters, people grab the pictures,” says documentary photographer Keith Calhoun from his neighbor’s front porch last August. “I didn’t value my photos until after [Hurricane] Katrina. Now every moment is of value to me because I see how quickly things can change, how nature can claim its course.”

Picture of a half-length, water-damaged portrait of a woman
Ida Mae Strickland, Sugar Cane Series, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun

Calhoun works together with Chandra McCormick, his artistic partner and wife, to document the gamut of life in their native Louisiana—from the prison industrial complex, to second line parades, to gumbo parties. McCormick says they feel it’s their calling to “capture the strength and dignity of black New Orleanians, who despite hardship find a way to create spaces for joy and celebration.”

The couple hasn’t remained in the Lower Ninth Ward by default, though. New Orleans is where they’ve “committed to live, work, and struggle”—to seek positive change through their photography and community action. And at times, it has been a struggle.

Picture of a water-damaged photograph of people holding American flags
We Too Sing America, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun

Back in 2005, when their family was evacuated before Hurricane Katrina struck, Calhoun and McCormick did their best to protect their photographic archive—what amounted to 30 years of work. They put the film in Rubbermaid bins on top of tables and fled to Texas, expecting to be back soon. When they returned to toppled bins and waterlogged negatives—in addition to lost lives and a flooded city—they were devastated.

“We felt an indescribable sense of personal and collective loss,” says McCormick. “Flood damage to our home and studio saddened us. We also felt pain and loss for our community.”

Picture of a water-damaged abstract photograph of life in New Orleans
The Gathering, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Chandra McCormick

Their son, who could sense their disappointment over the damaged work, encouraged them to hold on to the negatives. A friend then suggested they freeze the film to stop any further deterioration. So they went fridge hunting. Right after the storm, McCormick explains, “residents were required to put their refrigerators on the street.” Calhoun found one, cleaned it, plugged it into a generator, and filled it with garbage bags of slides and negatives. They weren’t sure if the freezer worked, but the next morning a cloud of frost appeared when they opened the door. Their memories remained frozen there for five years.

Picture of a water-damaged portrait of a dock worker in Louisiana
Dock Worker Series, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun
Picture of a water-damaged photograph of a brass band inside a church
ReBirth Brass Band, Mount Mariaha Baptist Church, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun

In 2009 the Ford Foundation awarded Calhoun and McCormick a grant to restore their work. Finding supporters for this process “restored our faith that everything is possible. Our spirits and energy were renewed,” says McCormick.

Picture of a water-damaged photograph of people gathered in front of a building
Untitled, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Chandra McCormick

Restoring the negatives was tedious and the chemicals toxic, but it was worth it. “Looking at the imagery for the first time was amazing,” McCormick says. “We didn’t know what to expect. We weren’t sure if there was anything there.”

Picture of a water-damaged photograph of someone exiting a house
Evergreen Big House, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun
Picture of a water-damaged photograph of two people standing next to each other in a sugar-cane field
Sugar Cane Series, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun

The images were, of course, transformed through this process. “The mold, cracked film cases, and restoration created abstractions of our initial images.” Hints of the old subjects remained, grounding the photos in reality, but the new dimensions that emerged fostered a deeper sense of beauty for their makers. Now, McCormick says, “the images represent different forms of light that guide and sustain us through trials and tribulations.”

Picture of a water-damaged photograph of an African-American man in a Native American headdress standing alongside other African-American men
Big Chief Tootie Montana, 1980s Circa 2010
Photograph by Keith Calhoun

These negatives document the New Orleans that existed before Katrina—in many ways a New Orleans that perseveres. But the images also bear physical witness to the effects of trauma, revealing the resilience of people who don’t give up, while testifying that they have been irrevocably changed.

Chandra McCormick and Keith Calhoun live and photograph in and around New Orleans. They founded L9 Center for the Arts in 2007 and continue to run arts programs for youth in their neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward.

See student work created at L9 Center for the Arts in collaboration with National Geographic Your Shot.

There are 16 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Saddi
    January 8, 2016

    Keith & chandra are not just photographers, they are historians, documentarians. Pre-katrina New Orleans is blessed to have been captured through their lenses

  2. Jill Earick Ananyi
    November 30, 2015

    So glad to see more evidence of the rebirth of Keith and Chandra’s art. For me they have always represented the best and most authentic of New Orleans. Like their city, they have found a way to make art from this tragedy.

  3. Major George Benson
    November 18, 2015

    Stunning! Absolutely stunning! This gives a whole new meaning to redux.

  4. Jen L
    November 17, 2015

    That these photos emerged from such a massive, collective and personal tragedy is remarkable.

    The way they have been restored embraces the ferocity of nature and retains a impressed feeling left on the images that is likely worn on the hearts of the survivors.

  5. Hazel
    November 17, 2015

    I totally agree with Wendy – a tragedy that you have lost your wonderful photos, but I am also a painter, and I agree that I think these are works of art.

  6. Yolanda
    November 15, 2015

    These are amazing!

  7. Debbie Williams
    November 15, 2015

    They lived, they suffered;
    They persevered,
    They triumphed!

  8. Nancy
    November 15, 2015

    . . .everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new! 2 Corinthians 5:17b

  9. Arden Lindsey
    November 15, 2015

    Indeed, old or damaged photos take on a new specter…the toll of time and events most profound. I cherish my damaged slides. They really do mean more than anything…the only remembrance I have of love now departed.

  10. Rob Hughes
    November 15, 2015

    Rebirth…absolutely stunning! Thank-you for sharing.

  11. Michael
    November 15, 2015

    This is wonderful imagery of the beauty, strength and stunning magnificence of the human spirit. I found myself fixated on each photo and what each means. Thank you for the perseverance to see through the fact that your work what really wasn’t lost, just transformed!

  12. Wendy Hembrow
    October 26, 2015

    I am so sorry your photos were so damaged but these prints are absolute works of art. As a painter I find them stunning. Thank you so much for showing them and for having the imagination not to give up on them. Kind regards

  13. C
    October 23, 2015

    In 2007 I was squatting a 2 story house right off of st claude in the holy cross neighborhood of the lower ninth ward and apparently the previous tenant who lived down stairs was a jazz photographer and I scanned a bunch of his photos I found down there. I cant remember the photographers name, but I still have a bunch of the scans that have the same water damaged effect… I guess I should look him up and send them to him.

  14. Donna
    October 22, 2015

    Such unique beauty resulting from the damage, actually better images than if the damage wasn’t visible. Certainly more meaningful than ever.

  15. Erin Olsen
    October 22, 2015

    I’m a NOLA girl born and bred who was displaced by Katrina. My parents and grandparents lost everything, including almost every photo ever taken of most members of the family. This story touched my heart and left me in tears. NOLA PROUD, NOLA STRONG.

  16. Silas S
    October 22, 2015

    Becky, new light on the New Orleans negatives, esp. the Sugar Cane Series, brings to mind the famous 1852 novel of Harriet Beecher Stowe, as to how change can change the lives of a generation. I guess the McCormicks have envisioned something classical. I can see layers of understanding in their work featuring American plantations. They appear not to be just abstract aberrations painted by nature. It intertwines with the history of what is now called the United States of America, if I am correct.

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