Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick

New Orleans

at Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans

Keith Calhoun: Plaiting Hair, Angola Prison, 1980, archival pigment print, 18 by 12 inches; at the Contemporary Arts Center New Orleans.

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Born and raised in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick have photographed together for forty years, capturing individuals at home, dancing in second lines, working, spending time with family and friends, and going to church in their Sunday best. This exhibition, “Labor Studies,” brings together more than one hundred of Calhoun and McCormick’s images in their hometown. While they don’t attribute their works as collaborations, Calhoun and McCormick’s art-making process often unfolds as the two visit sites and speak with subjects as a pair; they then take photographs on their own, producing work that is at once personal and complementary. Rather than digital means, they use primarily film, a medium that befits their process of slowing down to be present with their subjects.

It is difficult to distinguish the individual styles of the two photographers, not only because of their shared imagery but also, perhaps, because it was Calhoun who taught McCormick how to use cameras and process film. The artists themselves claim they can’t always tell who shot which image. With the exception of one display that features works by Calhoun on the left and works by McCormick on the right, photographs by the two are mixed throughout, with no labels noting artist, title, or date. Brief texts explain five categories spanning the four decades of their practice: sugarcane and sweet potato harvesters, dockworkers, infrastructure and hospitality workers, cultural economy workers, and imprisoned workers at Louisiana’s Angola State Penitentiary.

Calhoun and McCormick’s images tell the stories of the people who built New Orleans, and whose labor continues to help it run. Their photographs represent the black and immigrant populations that nurture the culture of New Orleans, from the cuisine to the music to spiritual and religious traditions. While these are fundamental to the city’s identity, they are created and maintained by people who are often underpaid, unheard, and unprotected.

This paradox is felt most starkly in the series shown here under the heading “Slavery: The Prison Industrial Complex.” Calhoun and McCormick were granted access to Angola more than thirty years ago, and have since documented prisoners, most of whom are black men, working in the fields around the prison, participating in its public rodeo and craft fair, and confined in their cells. In one photograph, a group of men labor in the heat of the 18,000-acre prison farm for nominal pay, as a guard on horseback sits feet away. This image was taken recently, yet it conjures associations with the history of forced slave labor in the South. As McCormick said in a gallery walk-through, Angola is not just sited on a former plantation; it operates as a contemporary one.

The images of harvesters and dockworkers capture men and women working steadfastly in fields and warehouses, and on boats and train cars. In these photographs, the fatigue in the subjects’ bodies is apparent, even though their heads are tilted downward or away from the camera. But there are also tightly framed portraits, like those of a woman holding a blade used to cut sugarcane and of a man with a dusty face, in which the subjects gaze directly into the viewer’s eyes.

While Calhoun and McCormick use group scenes to expose the structural conditions of oppression for working-class and prison populations, they insist on the dignity of the laborers as individuals by making carefully composed, warmly felt portraits. Each thematic grouping in the exhibition is compelling on its own, but in sum they make a powerful call for viewers to question how their position in society shapes their gaze and actions.