In honor of the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival that’s currently underway, today’s guest blogger is Richard Sexton, acclaimed photographer of two of the most stunning books in Chronicle’s publishing history. Vestiges of Grandeur and New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence recently came back into print due to ongoing demand (rightfully so).
Have you been to The Big Easy? What’s your favorite thing about this incredibly distinctive, beautiful city? Leave a comment below and you’ll be eligible to win a copy of both books to be rewarded to a randomly selected individual (offer valid in the US and Canada only).
Laissez les bons temps rouler!
New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence was first published by Chronicle almost 20 years ago, in 1993. Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, a companion volume, came six years later in 1999. Both titles have had a life in print that exceeded my wildest expectations, with multiple printings, strong sales, and critical praise. When each title was first released, I became the proud father of a newborn. Now that they’ve been reissued as modern classics, I’m more like the proud father at a wedding or college graduation. What has made each title successful, I think, is they are vivid portraits of a special place and time.
I moved to New Orleans in 1991 and was immediately taken by the faded grandeur of the place. It had a long reputation as a grand, baroque bohemia, one it still clings to today. My work has always been about the passage of time and in New Orleans and its surrounding countryside, I had stumbled upon a true mother lode. I merely wanted to document the treasure trove around me. I quickly discovered that the local gentry was about as eccentric and idiosyncratic as the sagging balconies and ruined finery all about them. And they were far more concerned with the fantasy, or Mardi Gras, or their next sumptuous meal, than with balancing their checkbooks or tending to their business interests. Tennessee Williams certainly could have thrived as a reporter for the Times-Picayune if he had somehow failed as a playwright. It was the wonderful eccentricity, the sensual grandeur gone to seed, the exuberance and celebration of travail and tragedy that I wanted to report with my camera. It was, quite literally, Elegance and Decadence.
Whereas, Elegance and Decadence was a celebration, Vestiges of Grandeur was more of a lament. I never envisioned that I would wander out into the countryside around New Orleans to photograph cane fields and plantation sites. But, this was a logical next step if I wanted to make a more complete portrait of the historic landscape of south Louisiana. So, after overcoming a certain trepidation with the subject, I decided to explore this rural landscape. Many buildings were abandoned, derelict, or altered beyond recognition. It was a fragmented world I tried to piece back together. And in the end I became as entranced with the River Road, riddled with its oil refineries and abandoned farm buildings, as I had been with New Orleans. It wasn’t all in disarray either. Many sites had been lovingly restored, and were open to the public as house museums. Ultimately, the river road proved to be as complex and enigmatic a subject as New Orleans had been.
I think both these titles now have a historical significance I never expected them to have, as chronicles of the recent past—a past I never expected would change as much as it has. Despite all the changes, New Orleans and the agrarian landscape around it remain much like William Faulkner once described the South in general, “The past isn’t dead. In fact, it hasn’t even past.”
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