Richard Sexton knows a thing or two about New Orleans.
Long before he moved there in 1991, the renowned photographer had visited and become fascinated with the city’s rich cultural history and architecture. His 1993 book New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence captures the city’s idiosyncratic character in intimate detail, and his photographs for Lake Douglas’ Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess do the same for its iconic landscapes.
Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and Latin American Sphere (The Historic New Orleans Collection), Sexton’s latest book, documents, in often surprising ways, the strong cultural and visual connections between the Big Easy and its neighbors to the south, specifically Cuba, Panama, Ecuador, Bolivia, Columbia, Haiti and Trinidad.
On exhibition at Whitespace Gallery through November 22, Creole World showcases 18 prints from the 203 images collected in Sexton’s book. The result is an eloquent distillation of the range, complexity and beauty of a project four decades in the making.
The factors that made New Orleans such an exotic cultural melting pot from its inception — European, Caribbean and African immigration, a flourishing sugar industry, its role as a seaport — are reflected in every aspect of the city’s identity, from architecture to music and cuisine. Sexton not only celebrates this in Creole World but also demonstrates the city’s aesthetic similarities, particularly in architecture, to such port cities as Havana, Cienfuegos and Jacmel.
Mixto, El Chorrillo, Panama displays the facades of two brightly painted double gallery homes, one mustard yellow with white trim, the other an intense aqua shade.The decorative cast iron that adorns the tops of the entrances and window arches, the balcony railings and the flung-open storm doors are all details you would expect to see on Bourbon Street. Even the small group of women and children gathered in front on the street mirror the sort of open air socializing that takes place on the boulevards of the Crescent City.
Esperando, Cienfuegos shows a horse and buggy carrying tourists past a grandiose, slightly faded colonial era residence in Cuba that could easily pass as a location in the vicinity of New Orleans’ Jackson Square.
Sexton also bears witness to the last vestiges of a cultural heritage that is in danger of vanishing, whether due to neglect, poverty, damage from natural events (such as earthquakes or hurricanes) or the apathy of political regimes. In Two Perspectives of the Past, Havana, a striking example, a structure in the neoclassical style lies in ruins in the foreground while the background is dominated by a modern high-rise. What could be interpreted as a critique of urban renewal becomes more complicated when you learn that the location is Havana and the towering contemporary structure, the Edificio Focsa, was built before the 1959 Cuban Revolution. The tallest building in the city, the 39-floor symbol of prosperity and sophistication became a victim of neglect during Castro’s regime and only recently has undergone a restoration.
Some of his most dazzling pictures exploit the sort of beauty that can result from decay. A doorway on a street or a wall in an abandoned home become studies in color, texture and material, some approaching abstraction. The faded purple and red balconies in Decaying Rhythms, for example, become a three-dimensional checkerboard composition.
The exact meaning of the word creole defies a precise, all-encompassing description because it has acquired different connotations in different countries. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary, for example, lists more than four distinctly different definitions of the word.
Yet Sexton achieves the rare feat of capturing the essence of the culture in visual terms. Shaped by the eye of an expert ethnographer, Creole World takes the viewer on an off-the-grid journey of earthbound beauty that is fading before our eyes.