November 2013



Church of the Living God II – Organ

The Ninth Ward

I drove into the Ninth Ward a year and a half after Katrina left it in ruins. Friends of mine who had already been there told me the devastation was “unbelievable.” I wondered what that meant – unbelievable.

My friends were wrong.



The Ninth Ward, in its ruin, was believable, but only in the way certain dreams are believable – post-World War III dreams. Miles and miles of empty houses. No voices, no cars – an eerie silence except for the distant rumble of dump trucks, the occasional crunching of wood. Now and then a darkened limo, or a Katrina tour bus, would drive through. The initial documentary Gold Rush – photography inspired by overturned houses, cars in trees, and mountains of debris – was plainly over. Dramatic spectacle had given way to pervasive loss – a condition far less tangible, and difficult to photograph.



By the winter of 2007, a large part of the neighborhood had already disappeared, and the rest was in danger of being hauled away. I began to photograph those things that still remained: beautiful wrought-iron railings, a church organ covered in cracked silt, and, oddly enough, a Sunday School bulletin board with rusted pushpins. I wanted the photographs to say “See, this was here, and that was there.” For a photographer, that seemed a simple enough and legitimate task. After all, the moment we allow ourselves to forget the intimate details of a Somewhere, Donald Trump and his developer friends, waiting in the wings, will happily make an entrance and build us a new and improved Nowhere – monolithic, impersonal, luxurious, and white. The Ninth Ward was disappearing, it seemed to me, not only because of Katrina, but because of a long-standing indifference to the poor, an indifference now transforming itself into a mercilessly strategic land-grab.



Photographs, though, not only remember, they register surprise. And what surprised me most about the Ninth Ward were the left-over particulars of a multi-layered human geography. What did I expect to find there? The media invariably headline poverty and crime, but those words, chanted like a mantra, don’t reveal or illuminate anything; they merely divert us from the deeper problem of American racism. In fact what I found and what I photographed wasn’t simply the remnants of a dilapidated and dangerous neighborhood now demolished by a hurricane, but the vestiges of a working-class community in which aspiration contended with scarcity, and where religious faith found expression on every block. From my perspective, the floodwaters had washed away not only bricks and mortar, but also the toxic stereotypes that separate us from each other. What was left, in other words, was the vanishing common ground, and it is this familiar terrain that I have photographed.


John Rosenthal’s photographs have been exhibited throughout the North and Southeast. His one-person shows include exhibits at The National Humanities Center, The New Orleans African-American Museum, Boston’s Panopticon Gallery, The National Academy of Sciences in Washington D.C, the Tyndall Gallery and NCSU’s Gregg Museum. His work has appeared in many publications including a 1998 collection of his New York photographs Regarding Manhattan, and, in 2005, Quartet: Four North Carolina Photographers. His work has been widely collected and can be found in the North Carolina Museum of Art’s permanent collection. Mr. Rosenthal was awarded a North Carolina Visual Art Fellowship in 2008 for his photoraphs of New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward. In the 1990’s, Mr. Rosenthal regularly aired commentaries on photography on NPR’s “All Things Considered.”