Le Monde Créole
Photographs of Southern Louisiana by Joel Pickford
exhibition -- June 2-28, 2013
at the Emerald Art Center in Springfield
"The past isn't dead; it isn't even past."
Since 1995, I have been photographing the culture, history and landscape of one of America's most distinct and anomalous regions, Southern Louisiana. A French and Spanish colony until 1803, its Creole inhabitants resisted the encroachment of American culture and language well into the 19th Century. Equally obstinate was the region's geography. Consisting mainly of swamps, salt marshes and low-lying prairies, it is hard to imagine a more inhospitable place for 18th Century colonists attempting to re-create European civilization. In their struggle against hurricanes, floods, snakes, insects, disease, heat and humidity, French and Spanish settlers had to draw upon the survival skills of their African slaves and of the people who were native to the area. All three groups intermingled and a unique hybrid culture was born.
The goal of my photographic project is to distil the essential themes of the Creole world into visual poems. The camera I have chosen for this work is a 5x7, whose large size and complicated accoutrements necessitate a slow, contemplative approach to photography. The elegant proportions of this film format, combined with certain wide angle lenses, have afforded me an ideal visual vocabulary with which to describe the ghostly spaces I have encountered.
Decay is a recurring motif in these photographs. The climate of Southern Louisiana is not kind to man-made structures. Rain, mold, humidity and the prolific growth of strangling vines can literally consume an abandoned building in a matter of years. Only with some effort on the part of caretakers can any building survive more than a decade. The houses in this portfolio are veterans of a longstanding battle between man and nature, a battle that in many cases is slowly being lost. I photograph decay because it allows me to record the transition of a subject from one state of being to another, capturing the flow of time in a still image.
Storytelling is another major motif in my work. Although I always strive to make images that stand alone without text or explanation, many of the pictures in this portfolio have elaborate stories behind them. There are tales of love and murder, of arranged marriage and suicide, of plantations occupied by Union and Confederate troops, of Generals wined and dined by a plantation mistress in order to save her place from the torch, of secret liaisons between master and slave, of the resulting children and their multiracial descendants.
While these stories fascinate me, they are not essential to understanding my work. Photography has a special ability to suggest that such stories exist without providing all the details. The viewer is left to engage the picture imaginatively and grapple with the narrative conundrums that it poses. The real power of a documentary photograph lies in the chasm between what it tells you and what it doesn't tell you.
- Joel Pickford