Having lived in New Orleans for more than two decades and authored numerous books on area architecture, Richard Sexton knows the city better than most natives. With his latest release, “Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere,” the award-winning photographer compares the Crescent City to its Creole cousins (Havana, Port-au-Prince, etc.). You’ll find the photo-heavy tome on shelves citywide, including the gift shop at the Historic New Orleans Collection, which published the book.
What’s the main connection between the cities you spotlight in “Creole World”?
There’s a strong sense of environmental ambiance between these various places, a shared sensory perception that, when you are there, feels like you could easily be in New Orleans. It could be standing in front of a building or with your eyes closed, breathing the air and feeling the humidity. It’s a combination of all of those things.
How do those cities/countries view New Orleans?
It depends on who the people are. If you’re talking about the average guy on the street in the Caribbean and Latin America, they may know about jazz music but they know very little about New Orleans. Conversely, the vast majority of people who live in New Orleans may know a little bit more about those places, but they don’t really understand them either. That’s one of the reasons I did the book.
What’s the Creole commonality?
I think Creolization grew out of different groups being thrust together in new, difficult environments under trying circumstances. And from that they had to figure out ways to cope and survive. There’s the old saying “necessity is the mother of invention.” Well, the inventions that occurred, these blendings of old things and new, define what is Creole.
Much of your work is architecturally focused. What’s your favorite local landmark?
It’s more a type of building than any one in particular. My favorite architectural situation in New Orleans is any number of great old buildings, from the early 20th century all the way back to the city’s beginnings, that have an interesting and compelling contemporary existence. In other words, I think one of the great treasures of New Orleans is that people of ordinary means can live in some pretty extraordinary buildings. Again, that’s kind of a Creole experience, doing with what you have. Anywhere else, even modest historical architecture is unattainable for the average person.
You often find beauty in what others might see as blight or decay. Explain the attraction.
Everybody loves ruins; we travel great distances to look at the ruins of ancient civilizations. Now, a contemporary abandoned building may or may not be a ruin. A lot of them are ugly, and they’re unfortunate; a lot are quite poetic and beautiful. But these are buildings that nobody lives in; they may be savable, maybe not. You don’t know what their future is going to be, which is a compelling reason to take a photograph, because, in either event, the status of the building is going to change; it’s not going to stay the same. In New Orleans the buildings are the backdrop for the human activity—the life—that goes on here. The old architecture, frequently in less than perfect condition, is the perfect backdrop for the post-modern contemporary experience that is going on today. So you have to get both; you can’t just photograph the building. What I tried to do In “Creole World” was more street photography that was architecturally focused.
Jackson Square is one of the city’s most photographed sites. Name three other picture-perfect spots to seek out.
Crescent Park is a perfect blend of old and new. You can see the river, these old burned-down wharfs and the skyline—the primordial, the ruins and the modern city all in one experience. Another public space would be the cemeteries, which are really spectacular and all over the place. Pick one, any one. St. Louis #1 and #3 are both very visitor-friendly, but I also like St. Roch, in particular the mortuary chapel, and Holt cemetery. Third would be Esplanade Avenue between North Rampart and the river. Within a five-minute walk, you’ll see some of the greatest architecture in the United States.
White Linen Night and Dirty Linen Night bring art lovers out in droves during August.
It’s a very interesting New Orleans kind of event. Like they say in Latin America, it’s a real rumba—even though it’s oppressively hot. Celebrating amid adversity is very much a local trait.
Any galleries you recommend visiting?
All the galleries here have different specialties. I can’t name them all, but I love A Gallery for Fine Photography. It has extraordinary photography that goes all the way back to the dawn of photography. It has that same feel as a pristine little antique shop in the Marais in Paris. You feel like you’ve stumbled on to a treasure trove of stuff. That’s hardly what we expect in a contemporary art-gallery experience, but I like it for just that reason.
You’ve published books on everything from River Road plantations country to San Francisco Victorians, and photographed cities around the globe. Where next in the world?
My next project is probably going to be more austere, in black-and-white, and much more Nordic in focus than what I’ve been doing recently, which has been New Orleans and Latin America and color and tropics and all of that. More introspective and monochromatic; my working title is “Artificial Memoir.”