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May 03, 2006

The Katrina Landscape: New Images From Photojournalist Alan Chin


Nature does not complete things. She is chaotic. Man must finish, and he does so by making a garden and building a wall.   -- Robert Frost

By now, everyone who follows this site is well familiar with photojournalist Alan Chin's remarkable black-and-white photos of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath.  Alan's first set of images formed the basis for The BAG's And Then I Saw These, recently recognized by the Koufax Award as 2005's  Best Post in the liberal blogosphere.  If you have come to The BAG more recently, however, you probably weren't aware of the second installment in this series, titled St. Rita Ongoing.  This involves a grittier set of images taken at the nursing home where its occupants, abandoned by the stuff, ultimately drowned.

Since then, Mr. Chin has been back to New Orleans two more times.  Being the craftsman that he is, however, Alan has only now printed the latest round of images -- taken in December '05.  Although Chin describes these photos simply as "more architectural," I don't think this does justice to their impact.

These new photos document, pay respect to, and visually embalm the fury of nature as dealt upon the developed world.  This power is even more poignant in light of the recently rising consciousness about the environment, and the alterations we are causing to its equilibrium.  At the same time, these shots also stimulate empathy for the mortals.  These scenes might only be structural, but the quality of abandonment tempts us that much more to want to restore our otherwise imperfect sense of order.

(Click image for expanded view)






(Technical note:  These photos were taken in a panoramic format.  Although the digital version of the images I received were originally 22.3 inches wide by 9 1/2 inches high, the photos you see here -- once you click the thumbnails -- are half that size.  Sooner rather than later, I hope these photos are exhibited, and published.  That way, they can be appreciated in all their detail, not to mention their dramatic sweep.  By the way, I believe Alan will be looking in on the comment thread to address any questions or comment

(All images courtesy of Alan Chin.  New Orleans. 2005.  Posted by permission.  Limited edition prints available through Sasha Wolf Photographs.  Contact:


The Frost quote is especially right for this place where the garden wall failed. These images document the power of Nature outside the New Orleans' levee walls. And the knowledge that these images come a full three months after Katrina's landfall gives us a glimpse at the looming wall of denial going up around a spectacular failure. Continuing spectacular failure.

These are very powerful photos. They remind us that even when the people are not seen suffering in a photo, the rotting and crumbling infrastructure still embodies tremendous sadness. New Orleans is the first US city to rot before our eyes. The decay can only spread unless it is managed, and our resources are not being directed to this project. Social inequities are at an all time high, we're going to be facing more extreme weather trauma, and our government is encouraging consumerism, nuclear development, and debt ecomonics. The health of the nation can only suffer if we don't focus on our well-being.

All of these photos show the decay of grand structures - not rotting huts or adobe dwellings, but of superhighways, supertankers, luxury lifestyles in decline. I feel like the tides are turning for the worlds most prosperous nation.


That would be the word I would use. That an startling, even after seen so many post hurricane pictures in my life (as a resident of Puerto Rico, I'm used to them). The first picture evokes a feeling of gazing into an post-apocalyptic (in the full meaning of the word )realm full of destruction and empty of human life. This feeling is reinforced by the picture of the crumbled roadway so typical of nuclear war flicks.

As commenters have noted in previous posts of Chin's eloquent photos, his use of black and white photography evokes memories of the great WPA photographs of the thirties. Chin's work here calls to mind the panoramic photographs taken of American cities during the nineteenth century. The nineteenth century panoramas reflected Americans' strong sense of optimism and civic pride. Chin's photos show the opposite. The sadness embodied in these photos that Gasho writes about has a racial aspect; America's (and the Bush administration's) contemptuous indifference for spaces identified with African-Americans.

If the scary neo-con republican/bushcheneyrove monster (i'm not sure what to call this force) is the germ, the devestation that remains in New Orleans is the disease. This country is sick and in need of help. In this way, New Orleans needs to remain in the national consciousness. These photos speak of that need.

I have a nightmare that the crooks now ensconced in Washington will not rest until all the blue states, and perhaps the entire country, looks like these pictures of NOLA. We know that's where we're heading. Perhaps the great unwashed out there lurking knows it too and that's why they are ignoring what has happened. Some of them, in a fit of superiority, believe they will be saved from this end, but they will not. The BCF has the Calvinist contempt for anyone who is not white and rich. Very rich.

I don't know how Chin manages to draw beauty out of such chaos. But then perhaps the chaos is so horrible that our feeble brains can't cope and chose to see beauty instead.

yes- wpa photographs. in the world of dazzling colors black and white photos always brings the veiwer back to stark reality. these pictures capture the essence of a natural and man made disaster just as the masters of black and white did during the 30`s. i hope future generations of americans will look upon these pictures of new orleans and ask the question- why?

Some day I hope to be good enough to hold Mr. Chin`s lense cap

Indeed a national treasure he is

"Nature is nowhere accustomed more openly to display her secret mysteries than in cases where she shows traces of her workings apart from the beaten path." - William Harvey

desolate, decimated New Orleans. Must have been eerie to walk in such an environment. A thriving port town rendered ghost town. Some photographers from Michigan (Detroit News mostly) went to New Orleans after Katrina to cover the immediate damage. At the annual Michigan Press Photographers Association Best of Photography 2005 contest, there were a lot of pictures of bodies and the flooding, a lot of pictures from the Superdome and the convention center. It is of utmost importance to document the human suffering, but seeing pictures of the environmental suffering gives us an even better picture of what the reality is really like. It's the big picture, the scenes absent of people and activity, Mr. Chin gives us with these. He shows us what isn't there: the support, the people.

Actually, these remind me mostly of the photos (also in black and white) of San Francisco after the 1906 quake. There have been several great centennial exhibits with panoramic shots of flattened blocks, shells of buildings, crumbling roads, even the ports ruined and lifeless. Quake, fire, and deliberate dynamiting took a toll. Obliterated.

The papers of the day discussed economic losses... business and banks and insurance... as though that was what mattered. There was talk about abandoning such a vulnerable area altogether and rebuilding elsewhere. (Sound familiar?) The photos, OTOH, showed a city and her people smacked down hard. Landmarks are not the only familiar anchors in our lives. We count on people being in their accustomed places, too.

San Francisco rebuilt, and rose up stronger.

The federal government did less meddling in those days and social nature took its course. People restored as much of their lives and patterns as they could. We'll soon be in the middle of another hurricane season and probably the best thing to happen would be to dismantle FEMA, tell Homeland in-Security to go back to Washington, and let the inhabitants return and rebuild and revitalize. Using zoning laws to make or break a city goes against both human nature and mother nature.

Meanwhile, these images are hauntingly beautiful. Whether they document the death or a turning point (cata-strophe) is left to history.

"Where there is a will, there is a way." I'm sure the Iraqis have a similar adage. After the bombing attacks of 1991 and near total infrastructure destruction, the Iraqis rebuilt a goodly portion within three months. [Go to Riverbend and scroll down a few posts for the photos.] After three years of "rebuilding" Iraq, the US government has done little except construct the largest embassy compound in the world; and that is not even completed.

After seven months, all the Katrina debris has still not been cleared. Damaged roofs have tarps which will have to keep out the next hurricane. Those people who returned (or stayed) are living in tents or trailers, if they can get FEMA to part with them. Thousands are still housed in other states and may be finding it harder to return with each passing week. And now, the best that our government can do is throw a hissy-fit, pack up FEMA and leave.

Are we a country without shame?

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