Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina
Photographs and Narratives by Thomas Neff
The LSU Student Union Art Gallery will hosted Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina- Photography and Narratives by Thomas Neff from September 2- September 30, 2015.
Two decades before the events of Katrina unfolded; a major theme of my work was documenting the rapidly disappearing single-family farms and ranches in Colorado. After moving to Louisiana in 1982, whenever I could, I’d stop by and visit with these ranchers, composing new photographs. During this time, the conversations often revolved around how difficult it was scratching a living from the land in the face of pressures from agribusiness conglomerates that were taking over their family owned farms. As I listened, it became evident that these gripping stories needed to be recorded, so in time, written narratives began to accompany many of the images. In part, I was influenced by the seminal work of James Agee and Walker Evans, who in the mid-1930s documented the lives of three tenant farm families in Hale County, Alabama. Their book,Let Us Now Praise Famous Men is considered the first endeavor on the part of writer and photographer to offer equal contributions to “complete” a story. I hoped that my efforts would serve in the same regard.
In 2005, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I once again heard the calling to become both a photographer and writer. For me, the epiphany to photograph “holdouts” came on the first day of a search and rescue operation while assisting with the evacuation of New Orleanians who either chose to stay or could not evacuate prior to the onset of Katrina. This endeavor proved to be a catalyst which developed into both a project and a mission that would be the high point in my career. As I began meeting more people who had stayed behind, I felt compelled to photograph them, and as I listened to their stories, written narratives began to flow. In 2006, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art mounted an exhibition of this body of work. The University of Missouri Press published the portraits and narratives in a book titled, Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina.
Throughout the post-Katrina years, I have returned to visit with many of the folks who shared their lives with me. In varying degrees, many have successfully brought some semblance of order back into their lives. Even my perpetually homeless friend, Tommie Elton Mabry, who wrote a journal on the walls of a project apartment, found a permanent home before his death in 2013. Conversely, at least sixteen other people pictured in the book have died, three of them meeting their death through violence.
In addition to mounting a traveling version of the original Ogden exhibition, I have continued to explore and revisit my previous work and the themes that have shaped my life for the past 46 years; primarily people and place. During weekend sojourns in rural South Louisiana or travel elsewhere, I am consistently drawn to people who are at “home” engaging in the circumstances of their lives. Though I am often a stranger to them, I try to develop a connection drawing on our mutual experiences and this feeling of kinship gives me an opportunity to use them as a subject. Their curiosity is also piqued when they see my head go under a dark cloth to set the composition on the ground glass. Once the lens is closed, and a film holder inserted; I stand next to the camera quietly conversing with the subject to put them at ease. When the moment comes that seems inexplicably right, I release the shutter with the hope that I have captured their pure imagery, one that encompasses all that we hold dear; a chance to capture this one brief moment in our lives.
ABOUT THOMAS NEFF:
Thomas Neff was born in Los Angeles, California in 1948. He studied at the University of California at Riverside and earned his Masters of Fine Art degree at the University of Colorado in 1980. Since 1982, he has been on the faculty of the School of Art at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Neff has produced bodies of work that focus on the people, places, and architecture of Colorado and Louisiana, and has also photographed extensively in Italy, Ireland, China, and Japan. His most recent work is a series of large-format portraits and written narratives of people in New Orleans who did not evacuate when Hurricane Katrina struck. On December 2007, the University of Missouri Press published his first book, Holding Out and Hanging On: Surviving Hurricane Katrina.
Neff is the recipient of grants from the NEA and the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and his images are housed in the permanent collections of the California Museum of Photography, the Houston Museum of Modern Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, the Louisiana State Museum, the LSU Museum of Art, the H.S. Ransom Research Center at the University of Texas (Austin), the Spencer Museum, and in numerous college, university, and private collections.
Neff retired from his teaching duties at LSU School of Art this past May, 2015. He and his wife, Sharon, plan to travel and continue his work photographing landscapes, architecture and people.
For more information on Thomas Neff visit thomasneffphotographer.com.