The devastation of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina has been imprinted in our collective visual memory by thousands of images in the media and books of dramatic photographs by Robert Polidori, Larry Towell, Chris Jordan, Debbie Fleming Caffrey, and others. New Orleanians want the world to see and respond to the destruction of their city and the suffering of its people—and yet so many images of so much destruction threaten a visual and emotional overload that would tempt us to avert our eyes and become numb.
In The Color of Loss, Dan Burkholder presents a powerful new way of seeing the ravaged homes, churches, schools, and businesses of New Orleans. Using an innovative digital photographic technology called high dynamic range (HDR) imaging, in which multiple exposures are artistically blended to bring out details in the shadows and highlights that would be hidden in conventional photographs, he creates images that are almost like paintings in their richness of color and profusion of detail. Far more intense and poetic than purely documentary photographs, Burkholder's images lure viewers to linger over the artifacts of people's lives—a child's red wagon abandoned in a mud-caked room, a molding picture of Jesus—to fully understand the havoc thrust upon the people of New Orleans.
In the deserted, sinisterly beautiful rooms of The Color of Loss, we see how much of the splendor and texture of New Orleans washed away in the flood. This is the hidden truth of Katrina that Dan Burkholder has revealed.
When Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans I was teaching a photography workshop in Montana, nestled comfortably in the cool, green mountains of the Northwest. It would be hard to imagine an environment more sociologically, aesthetically, or emotionally separated from the events that were taking place on our Gulf Coast. As images of the catastrophe filled the television screen, it was difficult to pull myself away. Invariably, the TV and magazine articles focused on the outside world of destruction. Pictures of the breached levee, houses on top of other houses, and cars in trees quickly became iconic visuals for the event. Still, I couldn't help but feel that a more important story of individual loss was being missed. As shocking as the flooding was to witness via video and print, there was a distance and anonymity to the images in the news.
I didn't immediately know I'd be making a pilgrimage to New Orleans to see and photograph what was left of the city. A festering awareness finally came to a head in early 2006 and I realized I had to go see for myself what had happened to her citizens. When I first set foot in the flooded sections of New Orleans, I saw immediately that a more personal and intimate story was hidden away where few camera crews had ventured. This larger and even more compelling story was lurking inside the homes, schools, businesses, and churches of New Orleans, and I began to document it. I think of the resulting photographs as portraits without people, in which the soul and spirit of the residents of New Orleans are more evident and essential than in the piles of litter in the streets outside.
One of the first things you will notice in this book is that the camera never ventures outdoors. You will occasionally get a glimpse of the outside world through a window or an open doorway, but your vantage point is always from within the clutter and dirt of damaged interiors. More than one friend or colleague encouraged me to take additional photos outside in the streets. It will make for a more complete photo essay, they said. No, I responded; others would do that job.
I took photographic liberties with this series of images, for several reasons. We are constantly bombarded with photographic depictions, via TV, web, and print, of everything from commercial products to disaster coverage. The result is that we easily become bored and perceptually complacent. I call this reaction to the overload of images "visual immunity." To avoid producing this response, one of my photographic goals was to capture the city's interiors more intensely and more poetically than a pure documentary approach would allow.
Employing photographic techniques that emphasized detail was critical. The visual tableau was vastly different from anything I'd seen before, largely because the flooding in New Orleans was so unparalleled. Weeks of soaking in filthy saltwater had changed everyday items into uncanny archaeological artifacts. The cracked mud, the corrosion on metal objects, the curling of wallpaper, the pink insulation drooping from ceilings—everywhere I looked there was another shocking detail to be recorded and highlighted. No matter how I photographed the interiors, it was important that this detail not only be captured, but also be rendered with rich texture and dimension.
Another primary photographic decision was to shoot in color. Though I'd worked for years as a black-and-white photographer, it was immediately obvious to me that New Orleans had to be portrayed in color, and confident color at that. In homes, businesses, churches, and schools, you'll see how boldly the residents of New Orleans embrace color in their surroundings. A monochromatic interpretation would have done a disservice to those rich choices.
Sometimes the way life's events are arranged works to our advantage. Just weeks before my first trip to New Orleans, I began experimenting with a new kind of photography called high dynamic range (HDR) imaging. In a nutshell, a judicious use of hardware and software lets photographers capture scenes with extremely high contrast ratios between the light and dark values. Had I tried to photograph settings similar to those depicted in this book a few years earlier, I'd have been forced to walk away from many of the subjects. There was no way a single exposure on film or digital chip could capture the extreme range of brightness values. HDR has changed all of that. Even rooms with glaringly bright windows and deep, dark shadows can now be rendered with visually inviting detail in every part of the image, for an almost painterly effect. HDR imaging was the perfect tool for capturing the harshly lit interiors of flood-ravaged New Orleans.
Note that HDR images look different from "normal" photographs. If an image appears overly colorful to your eye, it's not because I artificially accentuated the colors with Photoshop®, but rather because so much color is revealed by the HDR process. Shadows that would otherwise appear dark and empty are now open and full of color; highlights that would be washed out and blank are richly textured and color filled. Your eye discovers information in every part of the image.
Using color and HDR techniques together revealed detail and captured the breadth of destruction, but by themselves they would not have been enough to make successful photographs. It has been said that placement of the camera is one of the most important decisions a photographer makes. With only a few exceptions, for the photos in this book I positioned the camera at eye level. I hope this helps you, the viewer, experience a "you are there" point of view. As you look at each image, you should feel as though you just walked into the room and are seeing the destruction for the first time. Scan the room and imagine standing in someone's home, now a wreck awaiting the bulldozer.
For those interested in such technical issues, the longest focal length used (on a full-size chip DSLR) was 24mm; most images in the series were exposed with an ultra-wide zoom between 12 and 15mm. You will notice lots of perspective effects in the photos. When the camera looks down, vertical lines converge. The point wasn't to distort, but rather to present a more intimate interpretation than longer lenses would offer. I feel that the vertical convergence you see in many of the photos adds to the sense of disarray and confusion, better typifying the scenes that were before the camera.
It is important to convey that I approached this project as an artist, photographer, and humanitarian rather than as a journalist. I unabashedly used photographic techniques that produced a hyper-real rendition of the carnage, going far beyond a straight portrayal. One of photography's jobs is to distill visual understanding from chaos and disarray—that is, to create a scene that gives your imagination the capacity to pause and explore, then to comprehend. Some who have seen this series feel I have overprocessed the images, or that they look more like paintings than photographs. I suspect that those viewers, more often than not, are uncomfortable with their attraction to the images, feeling guilt that photographs representing such terrible misfortune can actually have a visual intrigue and appeal. Trust me, if I didn't feel the approach matched the subject matter and the conditions perfectly, I would have photographed another way, or not at all. These are detailed photographs that invite inspection; this isn't an accident. My sincerest hope is that the captured minutiae give you a more personal experience as you witness the havoc thrust upon the people of New Orleans.
There is nothing pretty about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina: certainly not the lives it claimed, the city it changed forever, nor the property that was lost. For decades I've declared my photographic devotion to emotional honesty over literal honesty. These photographs are, for me, the most emotionally accurate portrayal I can possibly share with you, the reader. For those unable or unwilling to make the journey to the Lower Ninth Ward and other heavily damaged parts of New Orleans, I offer this book so that you too can witness the shadows of lives and loss in the Crescent City.