L.J. Goldstein lives in a shotgun house with high ceilings and spartan furnishings in Treme. The brass band funerals and second-lines that wind through the neighborhood are elemental to his world, far from a comfortable Manhattan upbringing.
Goldstein pulled into our Greyhound station in 1993 with a BA from Bard College, his cameras and not much else. “I used to dream of moving to New Orleans,” he says. “I was drawn to the music and the Storyville photographs of E.J. Bellocq. One day I got on the bus.” He went to Tulane Law School in the mid-90s. Today his legal work is part-time, by choice.
New Orleans music has a cult following on the Internet, thanks to WWOZ-FM/90.7. In last year’s fund-raising drive, the radio station gave contributors a 2004 calendar featuring Goldstein’s black-and-white photographs. The cover shows a black boy, maybe 10, decked out in fancy parade threads, sporting a long cigar and an impenetrable gaze. He stands beneath the motto “Is love ever simple? The pursuit of truth and beauty in New Orleans,” which was also the name of Goldstein’s recent show at the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park.
The calendar helped launch Goldstein’s career as a fine-arts photographer. Last spring at Jazz Fest he had a booth selling photographs in four sizes, the largest ones at $360. As he generates institutional sales without gallery affiliation, he is also marketing his prints on the Web site www.brothergoldstein.com.
Goldstein’s pictures explore a culture to which he felt a magnetic pull. A 1999 image shows a line of men in coordinated hats and striped shirts. They stand or kneel in neat rows behind a hedge of matching striped umbrellas that look like big blossoms. Their sign reads: “Black Men of Labor’s Labor Day Parade … Please leave your Guns, Dogs and Snakes at home. Come and have some Fun!!”
Treme is a study in the resilience of culture amidst decay. In the early 1960s, the last all-white administration at City Hall demolished 12 square blocks of it, including Victorian and shotgun houses worth preserving, and displaced thousands of people as the first step in an envisioned Lincoln Center of the South. The plan failed, the space belatedly named Louis Armstrong Park. The city meanwhile razed two miles of beautiful oak trees on the grassy neutral ground of nearby North Claiborne Avenue to build an overhead artery to Interstate 10. Dozens of black businesses succumbed in the process.
Since then Treme has lost 15 percent of its population. Despite some restoration of architectural gems (such as Goldstein’s house, which he bought at a bargain price), the neighborhood was becoming an economic basket case when the 1980s crack epidemic made things worse.
“I’ve lived in Treme 11 years,” Goldstein says. “People in the social and pleasure clubs who sponsor the parades are on the upper edge of the working class. They’re putting away $20 or $30 a week for decorations on the shirts and shoes. Each club spends a year preparing for a four-hour parade.”
He lingers over an image of five men captured in a moment of poetic dancing on a sidewalk. “If you didn’t have those second-lines, there would be unbelievable violence in this city.”
A 1996 photograph shows Troy “Trombone Shorty” Andrews, back arched against a wooden building, his instrument uptilted next to his much older brother, James, on trumpet, with two other trombones creating diagonal cross-lines into the frame. “I waited to get those trombones when they crossed,” Goldstein says. “The picture hints at the greatness we hope Troy will achieve.”
Troy Andrews, now a strapping 18-year-old, has moved to trumpet, with two CDs to his name. His family, thanks to James’ success, moved out of Treme, though the brothers return to play the second-lines.
“All photographs are about relationships,” Goldstein says. “On a visual level, they are about the subjects’ [relationships] with each other and the edges of the frame. On a spiritual level, they are about the viewer’s relationship with this visual arrangement. The best photographs speak to something true and beautiful outside the frame, something metaphorical, like in music, that cannot be expressed with words,” he explains.
“I’m trying to make photographs of the triumph of the spirit.”