MY FIRST TRIP OUTSIDE THE COUNTRY SINCE LOCKDOWN NEEDED TO BE SPECIAL. I’d begun planning a trip to New Orleans over two years ago, and of all the places on my shortlist – Las Vegas, Scotland, Miami, Iceland, Nashville, Quebec City – this one seemed both affordable and potentially refreshing, as it would be as different from Toronto as any city in North America could be. That I planned everything out painstakingly in advance is to be expected; that a lot happened to mess with my plans goes without saying.
My notebook pre-visualization for the trip was mostly vintage postcards, since most of the images I have of New Orleans come from old movies and books. And yes, I knew that the modern city – post-economic downturn, post-Expo, post-Katrina – was very different from the city in these postcards, but I had to start with something, so it felt imperative to lay out these somewhat idealized images ahead of time, if only as a point of departure when I was on the ground.
And what inevitably happens in this sort of situation is that what you actually see when you arrive is either fundamentally different from what you expected – my image of the city’s waterfront went back to the ’50s, and that area is utterly transformed today – or that you’re almost overwhelmed by a granular level of detail that no postcard or travel magazine essay can hope to convey. I knew, for instance, that protests during lockdown had seen the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from the tall podium he once occupied overlooking the traffic circle bearing his name, just by the city’s relatively new museum district. But seeing the empty pedestal was a strange, arresting sight.
The neighbourhood around my hotel – the Central Business District, on the far side of Canal Street from the French Quarter – isn’t one that gets talked about much except as a place you’re likely to find a hotel, but during a brief morning walk to Lee Circle and the WW2 Museum I found it fascinating; if I ever get back, it’s a place I’d like to explore a bit more. I don’t know that I expected from the Mississippi, but it was truly impressive, underlining for me at least its incredible historical and geographic importance.
I’m always amazed by palm trees – what Canadian isn’t? – and ended up being grateful for the half-day detour that took me to the St. Roch neighbourhood. I knew I wanted to photograph the cemetery there, but getting back into Canada required a PCR Covid test, which I accomplished standing at the drive-through window of a CVS on the (misleadingly named) Elysian Fields Avenue. St. Roch is not an area that makes tour itineraries, but it was worth seeing the city most locals actually live in, away from the Quarter or the Garden District.
The city was still recovering from Hurricane Ida when I was there – a storm more powerful but less lethal than Katrina. The damage looked minimal downtown, where the streetcars on Canal weren’t running while they repaired the catenary lines, and I wasn’t able to get a muffuletta from Central Grocery since it was closed after losing a wall. But in St. Roch the aftermath was much more visible, with boarded-up houses, homeowners and workmen repairing roofs and walls, and even a few places collapsed by the storm.
I had three objectives at the start of the trip – my usual hunt for iconic photos, a list of things to do between photos, and a tour of as many of the city’s famous cemeteries as I could manage in four days. Full of pent-up energy and ambition, I bought books for research – the standard DK Eyewitness guidebook, a thick history of the city’s early history and a book full of photos and history of the cemeteries.
My plan was to only use the city’s streetcars to get around – the Canal and St. Charles lines – but I ended up walking over 40 km on foot, a good part of that hiking through the cemeteries at the end of the Canal line and on to City Park. For a cemetery aficionado, New Orleans is a must-visit city, and while the monuments and graveyards were more than photogenic, it was hard not to be touched by the small details, like the “grave gifts” people would leave at tombs.
The big challenge shooting a bunch of cemeteries is making sure you don’t just present a catalogue of gravestones. I worked hard to accentuate the different character of each cemetery – the grandness and space of Metairie, the avenues of uniform crypts in Greenwood. I had to work quickly in St. Louis No. 1, so I just used my compact Fuji X30, which gave the photos there a snapshot feel. In other cemeteries I switched lenses to maintain a look, relying on my fisheye 7.5mm in the Masonic Cemetery, and my vintage Pentacon 50mm in Holt, which lent those shots a dreamy, even bleary look.
As you can imagine, a chance to get off my feet and relax, if only for a half hour or so, was welcome. I made cafe au lait and beignet a daily ritual, and did the pilgrimage to the Carousel Bar at the Hotel Monteleone for a sazerac. On most days, a crowded and noisy bar full of tourists and a post-office crowd might not be relaxing, but I was able to find a chair by a window next to the revolving bar, and the enveloping din somehow made the cocktail even more enjoyable.
I was lucky to have a friend in the city, and on my first full day my buddy Barry, whose family has been in New Orleans for actual centuries, ran me up to Metairie, the most grand and impressive of the city’s famous cemeteries. I’d brought a couple of pinholes with me, but only got a chance to use them in Metairie and St. Roch – the rare times I was able to slow down long enough to do the whole pinhole ritual.
POSTSCRIPT: The worst part of the trip, unfortunately, was getting there and back. Flying down, I’d booked an efficient trip with a brief stopover in Charlotte that would get me to Louis Armstrong International just before noon. Unfortunately American Airlines canceled my connecting flight a few days after I booked and had me wait six hours in Charlotte, arriving in New Orleans just as the sun went down – and losing me a precious afternoon of shooting.
Getting home, however, turned out to be worse. After I got an alert on the morning I was leaving that my flight was delayed slightly, my gut told me things were fishy so I arrived at the airport early and got on standby for an earlier plane to catch my connecting flight at Dallas/Fort Worth home. My luggage left, but I didn’t, and over the course of the afternoon and evening my original flight (as I suspected) kept getting delayed. My connection at DFW was lost, a hotel was arranged by the airline for an overnight stopover, but then that became a moot point when the plane I was supposed to be on was delayed until the next morning, stranding me in Louis Armstrong overnight without a place to stay.
I knew by now that my flight was never going anywhere. (AA canceled it in the middle of the night.) I ended up sleeping (if you can call it that) in Louis Armstrong International, a couple of hours of which were spent on the phone arranging a new flight with American through Charlotte and then to Toronto. (My luggage would take the long way from DFW, through Chicago, finally arriving in Toronto hours after I got home.) I have never had to sleep in an airport before; it was a revelation how many people do, on any given night. I never want to do it again, and my enthusiasm for flying in this period of Covid tests and airline uncertainty is dampened a bit.