When out-of-towners first see Jennifer Shaw’s New Orleans photography, especially the sepia-toned series of industrial detritus and backstreet scenes, they often assume the subjects are evidence of Katrina’s lingering devastation. In fact, most were shot before the storm and are more like examples of how an artist can communicate wonder and beauty in scenes most people simply zoom past.
Through Shaw’s lens, castoff objects, lonely streets and tiny design details on buildings and machines take on timeless and evocative qualities, like dreamscape images undulating between precision and mellow haze. Paint peeling on a derelict delivery truck looks like alligator hide while a battered shipping buoy seems more like a Soviet-era space capsule than something that once bobbed in the Mississippi River just over the levee.
Shaw uses a Holga camera, a plastic device that retails for about $30 and is the technological polar opposite of today’s digital cameras. The simple camera offers little control in shooting. But when Shaw works with the images in the darkroom at her Uptown home, spontaneity meets a careful toning process and produces distinctive, often haunting final results.

The darkroom is where Shaw developed her love of photography, which she began exploring as a young child in her native Milwaukee, Wis.

“It was the magic of the darkroom, the whole process,” she says. “You’re in there working alone and watching the images come up in the dark.” 

After earning a degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, she moved to New Orleans out of curiosity over the city’s fabled culture. While she has an ever-evolving photo series on Mardi Gras revelers and their costumes, she finds much of her subject matter by crawling around obscure and forgotten areas, such as maritime storage yards along Tchoupitoulas Street.

“When I decide to go out shooting, I usually just hop on my bike and pedal around until something strikes my eye,” she says. “You just see so much more when you’re biking or walking than driving.”

Shaw’s latest project is moving in quite a different direction, however. Using color film, she is composing close-up photos of children’s toys for a series that, taken together, will tell her personal Katrina story, which includes giving birth the day the storm hit.

Shaw’s work is held in public collections, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Ogden Museum of Southern Art. She will be featured in a December show at Farrington Smith Gallery, held in conjunction with a month-long local photography project called Photo Nola (www.photonola.org). To see her work online, go to www.jennifershaw.net.

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