Artist Profile: Lisa Silvestri

Thom Bennett

The statistics and strategies of the reinvented New Orleans public school system are under widespread analysis during the community’s monumental recovery effort. For an intimate glimpse into some of the young lives at the heart of the endeavor, plan a visit to the Ogden Museum of Southern Art for photographer Lisa Silvestri’s “The New Orleans Portrait Project.”   

 The project is a collection of 60 portraits of New Orleans teenagers that Silvestri completed at John McDonogh High School in the Esplanade Ridge neighborhood. Made using a large-format view camera and a 19th-century finishing process, the black-and-white portraits are stark but carry a natural elegance. There are none of the usual Katrina cues of damaged homes or broken urban landscapes to frame the portraits’ context. Rather, the viewer is left face-to-face with these young New Orleanians, left to decipher and wonder at what they might have seen and what they might hope for today.

“These are the kids people saw on the news right after Katrina,” says Silvestri. “I wanted to put faces on them as individuals.”

A native of Gentilly, Silvestri studied fashion and photography in New York in the 1980s and later designed her own children’s clothing label, Ida Ltd., which sold worldwide. She created Ida’s advertising images, and the work gave her a great deal of experience photographing children. Since 1997 she has worked exclusively in photography, and her images have run in such publications as Self, Martha Stewart Living and Money.

She started photographing post-Katrina New Orleans in the weeks after the flood, beginning with the remains of her own childhood home. Before long, however, she turned her camera to the people she encountered around the city, people returning to find out what was left of their communities. She photographed individuals of all different ages and in all different settings before zeroing in on the high school.

Some of the subjects display typical adolescent haughtiness, others a familiar vulnerability. Most are pictured wearing their school uniforms. But all of them, seen through Silvestri’s lens, reveal their own personalities and some reflection of their own New Orleans and their experiences in it.

The Ogden marks the debut of “The New Orleans Portrait Project” with an opening event on Oct. 4, to which the portrait subjects and their families have been invited. The show continues through December. To see more of Silvestri’s work online, go to www.lisasilvestri.com.

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