Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick (b. 1955 (Calhoun); 1957 (McCormick), New Orleans, Louisiana (Calhoun); New Orleans, Louisiana (McCormick))

Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick are a married couple who collaborate as a team. Based in New Orleans, they are both from the city’s Ninth Ward, which had the largest community of African American homeowners in the country before Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. The couple met in 1978 when Keith, who had recently opened a photography studio, took Chandra’s photograph and then showed her how to develop film in the darkroom. Their linked careers have focused on documenting African American experiences in New Orleans and the surrounding Louisiana parishes. Attempting to represent “the soul of the city,” the two capture African American church ceremonies, community celebrations, rich local musical traditions, parades, and funerals as well as the activities of laborers on docks and harvesters gathering sweet potato and sugarcane crops. They have also documented the lives of men incarcerated in the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the effects of Hurricane Katrina on the local community, including the widespread displacement of families from the Ninth Ward. Their work was included in the 2015 Venice Biennial and is in the permanent collections of the New Orleans Museum of Art, Louisiana; the Louisiana State Museum, New Orleans; and The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Texas.

Like so many New Orleans residents, the couple fled to Houston the day before Hurricane Katrina hit their city. They left behind all of their work, elevating their photographs on high shelves and encasing them in plastic bins. Despite these protective measures, when they returned ten weeks later they found most of their prints and negatives damaged or destroyed. Though many were completely ruined and had to be discarded, some were not destroyed but altered. The photographic emulsion merging with mold and water sedimentation left interesting patterns and color transformations on these images, causing them to become mixed-media pieces. 

The effects of the damage transformed those images’ identities, with a second date added to mark this transformation. Photographs that previously documented the vibrancy of New Orleans life before the flood became lyrical metaphors for the destruction brought about by the storm and its aftermath. Sometimes the textural quality of the effects even suggests physical markings and scars of trauma. Ida Mae Strickland (1987, ca. 2010), for example, is a portrait of an elderly woman shown from the waist up, seemingly lost in thought with a furrowed brow. She appears contemplative and dignified, as one whose internal strength has carried her through the years. The water damage creates rippling patterns that appear to emanate from her head and evoke wrinkled folds of aged skin. These unintentional effects reinforce qualities of the original image. The photograph, like the original sitter, has quietly weathered the influence of time and nature but still survives. 

There is also something surreal and even psychedelic in some of the colors and patterns of the damaged works. For example, Big Chief Allison “Tootie” Montana and the Yellow Pocahontas Indian Gang (1980s, ca. 2010) shows an icon of New Orleans life, Allison “Tootie” Montana, playing a tambourine and glancing side-eyed at the camera while marching in a parade. Montana was the best known of the “Mardi Gras Indians,” folk artists who craft and dress in elaborate costumes for the annual parade. Their constructions are made from colorful beads, jewels, and feathers and are inspired by traditional Native American, African, and Caribbean craftsmanship and dress. The damage to this photograph provides bursts of pink, red, purple, and orange around the Big Chief while the rest of the composition remains as it was. The crisp black-and-white documentary quality of the original has morphed into something much more evocative and dreamlike. The Big Chief’s very spirit seems almost to gaze out from the colorful aura radiating around him. As with Calhoun and McCormick’s other photographs, this work symbolizes the possibility for revival after hardship.

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