St. Louis Photographer Displays Unique View Of New Orleans Hurricane Damage
Photographer Stan Strembicki grew up in Rhode Island and taught for decades at Washington University in St. Louis, but he’s also been a frequent visitor to New Orleans.
When Hurricane Katrina unleashed devastation on New Orleans in 2005, he knew he wanted to document the aftermath in a way that wouldn’t exploit residents’ anguish.
“I was horrified by what I saw on the evening news, like a newscaster going up to someone and saying, ‘Hey, your house was destroyed, you must feel terrible about that,’” Strembicki said. “One rule I had was that I wouldn't photograph people in despair.”
Instead, he photographed books from a flooded library in the Lower Ninth Ward — a historic, Black neighborhood hit hard by the storm — that were scattered in a field. For three years, Strembicki visited the location every few months and documented the books as they decayed.
“Lost Library,” an exhibition of those photos, is on view at the High Low Gallery in Grand Center through Oct. 13.
St. Louis Public Radio’s Jeremy D. Goodwin spoke with Strembicki about the motivation for his project, and how he sees the disfigured books as emblematic of a neighborhood that the city has failed to fully rebuild.
Jeremy D. Goodwin: How did you wind up photographing in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina?
Stan Strembicki: In 1984 I was asked to shoot a commercial job down in New Orleans. I was a real New Englander, and I fell in love with New Orleans. And I started going down on a regular basis. In 1990 I photographed my first Mardis Gras, and since then I’ve photographed 29 of them. I have friends there. My daughter lived there for a while.
When Katrina happened, I felt I needed to respond somehow. I went down 30 days after the storm and I was blown away by what I saw. An entire city had been emptied out. The city smelled differently. It smelled of earth and death. I was just overwhelmed by this whole experience and felt that as an artist I wanted to do something in response to what happened there.
There were artists who were collecting things and bringing them back to their studio. I was sort of horrified by that.
Goodwin: Bringing things back? Like what?
Strembicki: You name it. There was one woman who was collecting Bibles, and she had a show of them in New York City. I thought that was kind of like looting a tomb.
There was already too much of what I considered to be ruins porn. People photographing in desolate buildings. I wanted it to be more than about the destruction of the place.
Goodwin: When you started taking photos, were there other people around?
Strembicki: Generally there wasn’t.
One of the things I noticed walking around in the Lower Ninth Ward is that there were things scattered everywhere. And one of the things I found was, I found a library that had been filled up with 20 feet of water and it scattered books all over a field.
These books were just ruined. They began to decay and work their way back into the landscape. And over the months, plants started growing back over the books. So the earth started reclaiming the books.
Goodwin: When you came upon this scene and saw these books scattered across the field, did you have an instinct that you might have found your subject?
Strembicki: Yes. I was really moved by this.
Goodwin: And each time you returned, were you wondering if that lost library was still going to be there?
Strembicki: Oh, you never know. Yeah.
As the books were degrading, the text began to merge and to get smooshed around. And it began revealing different things in it. It was like a code that was being [revealed] there.
One of the images I made — the book degraded, the only words you could make out were boy, danger, killer, waters. Another book, a dictionary, was in the Ps. It was all kind of coming apart. But the words you could pick out were power, politics, persuasion. These were words that were meaningful phrases in terms of how New Orleans was rebuilding.
Goodwin: Looking at the pictures in this exhibition, they're very sad. They’re also very beautiful, in a strange way.
Strembicki: When you photograph something that’s truly hard to look at, there’s the intellectual response to it but then there’s the visceral response to it. When you look at it and say, ‘That’s a beautiful picture,’ and then you realize what that beautiful picture really means.
It really talks about the destruction of culture. Or the loss of, if you will, history, information. And the idea that when you lose a book or in a greater sense a library, what have you lost? How do you measure that loss?
Goodwin: In some of the close-ups, the pages and the dirt or the overgrowth are competing with each other for the space. There’s almost some resilience here too, because the parts of the books that we can read, it’s like, that piece of culture is sitting on that spot and it’s not going to move. But it’s amid a context of losing a lot.
Strembicki: Yeah and I felt it was important to show these books, to give the evidence of where I found them. I took great exception to some people that were removing things, even though this was all going to be bulldozed up.
Goodwin: This was in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was hit very hard by the flooding.
Strembicki: Yeah. The Lower Ninth really took the brunt of it. It was historically a middle to lower-middle income, Black neighborhood that had a really high percentage of home ownership. This is where people lived for generations. Generations of people lived there.
It was a community of families built around the faith-based community and it's just not the same now. And the people that live there will tell you that.
Goodwin: The intention behind this project is a love for the city. But did you question yourself about whether you were doing the right thing, photographing this neighborhood you didn’t live in?
Strembicki: Yes. And that’s part of reexamining the work when I’d come back. There were people that went down there, photographed for a week, got back to home base, published a book and they were done. I felt I owed it more than that.
Goodwin: So the end of this project was that one time you showed up and the scene wasn’t there anymore?
Strembicki: Yeah, I went to the library and it was all gone. They’d come and started bulldozing and all the books were gone.
Goodwin: What did you feel in that moment?
Strembicki: In some ways you’re a little relieved. Because you think, ‘OK, now I can start to make sense of this.’
Goodwin: What would you like people to get out of seeing these images?
Strembicki: Well, you know, the value of how we think about our past. And how we record that.
Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin