New Orleans Portrayed

Sep 3, 2020  By David Spielman

When you take a moment and think about it, New Orleans is, for all intents and purposes, an island. To get here you have to cross a bridge. We are surrounded by water and are below sea level. Adding to its uniqueness or weirdness, depending on your perspective, we were founded by pirates. It is thought to be where the Mafia first appeared in North America. So the stage is set for one of the greatest contradictions of our times. Jazz was founded here, along with Creole cooking, many cocktails, medical procedures and other things. We are proud of many, would like to forget about others, but good or bad, they all have contributed to the magic and soul of this place.

New Orleans has been my home for over forty years. I never imagined I would have stayed this long but somehow the humidity, never ending summers, flooding, hurricanes, music, food and of course, the people and characters, have gotten under my skin and into my heart. Arriving here more or less on a whim, having never been here before, not knowing what a freelance photographer did and how I was going to make a living, I embarked on this great adventure. The ride hasn’t been easy, or boring. Recessions, hurricanes, oil spills, 9/11 have made it a changing game of challenges and adventures.

New Orleans Portrayed is my fifth book, after Southern Writers, Katrinaville Chronicles, When Not Performing, and The Katrina Decade. My thought process for Portrayed was simple. During our 300th anniversary I wanted to explore and reintro- duce myself to New Orleans: digging deeper, looking harder as the world and N.O. are changing at “internet” speed. The idea was to put together a body of work that would reflect what we looked and felt like at 300 years old. My plan is to give a set of prints to the Historic New Orleans Collection, so years down the road there will be a window for future generations to view our city. Freeport McMoRan, a good and generous friend and corporate client of mine and supporter of HNOC, generously helped underwrite the gift of prints.

I spent a little over a year crisscrossing and backtracking through the streets and neighborhoods: turning right when I used to turn left, looking up instead of looking down, and trying to see it through fresh eyes. My photographic heroes are those who shot during the Depression for the WPA: Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks are just a few. Of course Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Doisneau and others have inspired me and propelled my photographic efforts. The thread that runs through their work differs from some of the work today. Their work, even in wars, depression, devastating poverty and awful events, managed to capture the human condition with the individuals’ dignity intact, whether Lange’s Migrant Mother, Evans’ Sharecroppers in Alabama, or Bresson’s images from around the world’s war torn and poverty stricken locations. You can see and feel their concern. They didn’t exploit or try to shock you; they were presenting their visual story. Sadly, today, the media is quite often only interested in the most shocking and alarming images, foregoing the story in the process.

New Orleans has its problems, as all cities have, but I wanted to capture a portrait of its personality and soul. It was my intent to show the power of our neighbors no matter what rung of the ladder they might be on: groundskeepers, wait staff, diplomats, writers, musicians, and on and on, I was looking for the power of their personalities. The same holds true for the architecture, small neighborhood restaurants, businesses and all the other little details that make us weird yet charming. Many may be gone soon as self-driving cars and Internet businesses may put an end to many of these quirky yet amazing ventures.

They are there, hiding in plain sight. As I like to say, “It isn’t about the gear, it is about learning to look”. If you don’t look, you won’t see and if you don’t see it, you can’t take a picture of it. It takes time, patience and determination to let those imag- es find you. I don’t find them, they find me. Every day, when I go out looking, I don’t have an agenda. I decide on an area and hope something happens, light, rain, people, whatever, I just widen my field of view and look. Usually something makes itself known: maybe not a great one but it starts the process and one thing will lead to another. There are two images in the book that I just happened to see looking out of my gallery window. The first is the cover, titled Commander’s & Clowns. Late one afternoon I was walking through the gallery and glanc- ing out the window, I saw them. Getting my camera, I went out and took the picture, not stopping and talking or asking what they were doing, as I really didn’t want or need to know. It was strong enough without those details. To me is showed very clearly the serendipitous nature of New Orleans. Our party and parade attitude is always close by. Of course I’ve been asked many, many times what was going on. Well, I can’t say for sure, but I’m guessing that they were waiting for a group to arrive and upon their arrival they were going to lead the party to the patio area at Commander’s Palace Restaurant.

My gallery is located in the middle of the Garden District in New Orleans, which is one of the oldest and historic neigh- borhoods in America. It sits across the street from Lafayette Cemetery #1 and caddy corner from Commander’s. Visitors in large numbers visit the Garden District, the cemetery and walk to Magazine Street where you will find unique shops. Late one afternoon as I was getting ready to close up shop, I happened to look out my window, across the street at the cemetery with its old patina brick wall. Standing there was a young couple, waiting for the restaurant to open. Very attractive, they leaned against the wall quietly, looking at their cell phones. Again, picking up my camera I went out, but this time, I asked if it was all right if I took their picture. They said, “Sure, what do you want us to do?” I said, “Nothing, just stand there and do what you were doing.” I took just a few frames then thanked them, giving them my card. I also told them “Please send me an email and if the picture is good I would be happy to send you a print.” Several days later, when I got around to looking at what I had taken, there was this wonderful image of the young couple: she in a very pretty white summer dress, he in a black suit with an open collar. She has tattoos covering most of her body that I can see. Looking closely, she had a Disney theme and a Snow White purse. A likeness of Willie Wonka and a Disney Castle on her arms, but best of all she is holding her shoes, tats on her legs and her feet are crossed at the toes, like a little girl. The old brick wall behind them adds texture to a very sweet portrait. I titled this Millennial Gothic. I’m still waiting for their email, as I really want them to have a print.

Walker Evans said, “Good photography is unpretentious.” It has always been important to me, not to over think or over produce an image. I’m trying to capture a fraction of a sec- ond. Sometimes it might be right before or just after what some people might call the decisive moment. It is the blink of an eye when the light, architecture and all the other ele- ments come together, giving meaning or sense to what you have been looking at. More times than not pictures/images find me. Heading out without any or very low expectations I never know what I might find. It always makes it interesting and after all these years I continue to have very good luck in finding faces and places to photograph.

Driving through Audubon Park one day, I noticed this couple standing beneath the Tree of Life, as it is known, flowers in her hand, waiting for the seven invited to their wedding. Just another moment in the park’s and tree’s long and illustrious life.

Leica’s M cameras have been the perfect tool for me. Wonderfully evolved, unquestionably designed, small, quiet and the quality of the optics are unsurpassed. Placing your- self and waiting for something to happen, becoming almost invisible, is the way I like to work. An observer of sorts, trying to express what I see and feel in one frame. With cell phone cameras and the self-absorbing nature of selfies, it is much more difficult to blend in and remain part of the background instead of being in the forefront of the event or whatever you are trying to take a picture of.

Taxi Cabs, as we have known them, may become dinosaurs in our time. Drive sharing businesses like Uber and Lyft are forcing cab services to the curb. GPS units have taken the place of knowledge of a cab driver who not only gets you to your destination, but might even share some of the city’s his- tory and personality. So, there the cars, drivers and buildings sit, and it won’t be long before children look at them with wonderment as the children today look at a rotary telephones.

Simon is a clever folk artist who offers witticisms and social comment through his work. He’s a Frenchman who found his way and his visual voice in New Orleans in the 1990’s: bright colors and interesting lettering are found in his elaborate artwork.

As I get older, I realize less is more. Too many photographic equipment choices cause you to pause and that might let the scene change or disappear. Pondering over which lens is sometimes an obstacle, so my feet become my telephoto or wide-angle lens. Hemmingway was always looking for the simplest and clearest words for his sentences; Picasso was trying to lay down the prefect line, the cleanest and most expressive. In my work, realizing I’m no Hemmingway or Picasso, I try to take the best possible picture each time I lift my Leica. As I move indoors or back outside, I adjust my camera and lens to what lighting conditions I encounter, shortening the time it takes to properly focus and expose the picture. All of these things have become almost second nature. My goal is to see, shoot and then move on. Before anyone knows I was there observing their world, capturing it for others to see and appreciate. Leica M’s are, for me, the perfect instrument by which I have made my living. They are and will continue to be my constant companion. The history and mystique of the cameras and lenses are epic. But, for me, the simple fact remains: the equipment is the tool that allows me to express my visual voice!

To order a copy of “New Orleans Portrayed” visit:

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Hi there. I have ordered the New Orleans Portrayed directly from David so hopefully I will get a copy sent to me.

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