By Doug MacCash, Times Picayune
Katrina continues to fuel Crescent City creativity. On Saturday night, photographer Jennifer Shaw debuts her personal, playful perspective on the hurricane that so changed our lives with a winning collection of photos at Farrington Smith Gallery.
Shaw, now 35, and husband Cesar Sousa hit the road the day before the storm struck, making their way to a hotel in southern Alabama before stopping for the night. Shaw was pregnant, due on Sept. 2. She intended to have natural childbirth. A friend put her in touch with a midwife near Huntsville, Ala., just in case the baby came sooner than expected. Which, of course, it did.
After a harrowing, 90-mph ride to a Huntsville hospital — with a police escort part of the way — little Claudio Sousa was born on Aug. 29.
For the next eight weeks, the couple gypsied around the country, pretending they were on a pleasure trip, visiting relatives, showing off the new baby, and killing time until they were able to return to their Uptown home safely. As so many New Orleanians discovered, things could get tense. Shaw took up smoking again, after having quit for two years. “You’d have to be a very Zen, very centered person not to turn to some self-medication, ” she said.
Finally, back in New Orleans, Shaw settled into motherhood. As the months passed, she found time to return to her cameras. Like so many others, her first instinct was to document the destruction. But somehow simple documentation wasn’t enough. Shaw had what she calls her “own specific crazy story of having a baby on the day of the hurricane.” She needed a specific crazy way to tell it.
Holgas are cheap, plastic cameras, made in China, with old-fashioned spool film, imperfect lenses, and quirky light leaks. Fine art photographers, like Shaw, love them for the unpredictable pictures they produce. “They’re fun. They’re simple. They have a sense of play, ” she said. Even before Katrina, Shaw had experimented with gluing a magnifying glass to the lens of a Holga to take primitive close-ups. When, in the months after the storm, she took some hazy, hallucinatory Holga close-ups of a music box ballerina and king cake babies, the light bulb went off. She would tell her hurricane tale with toys.
Since then she has held the lens of her modified Holga within an inch of plastic firemen, helicopters, dogs, cats, various emergency vehicles, miniature wine bottles, a pregnant fashion doll, babies, a cave man, a dollhouse ashtray, a monster and myriad other tiny props. Shaw says that Claudio, now a toddler, sometimes “strews them about” the darkroom.
The viewfinder of her modified Holga is useless, so Shaw just points at her subjects and hopes for the best. She went through 110 rolls of film to create the 47 dreamy, sometimes disturbing photos that appear in her self-published book “Hurricane Story.” She’s printed 28 of the photos for Saturday’s opening at Adam Farrington Gallery in Faubourg Marigny.
“It was a crazy time, ” Shaw said of her post-Katrina experience, “with extremes of sorrow and anxiety.” But those extremes were balanced by “the totally amazing and pure” gift of a child. That balance of angst and wonder can be felt in every photo. Even if you think you’ve seen it all where Katrina’s concerned, trust me, you’re going to love Shaw’s marvelous memoir. Shaw says she quit smoking.