Tooth for an Eye

February 1st, 2011 in Archive by 1 Comment

Tooth for an Eye
A Gallery Walk with Photographer Deborah Luster
Jack Shainman Gallery, New York

“Living in New Orleans is not unlike living in the Old Testament.” –Julia Reed

My name is Deborah Luster, I’m at the Jack Shainman Gallery in Chelsea and we’re looking at the exhibition Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish.

Orleans Parish is the footprint for New Orleans. A chorography is a mapping. This show is homicide sites in New Orleans, they’re places where homicides have been committed, it’s a view of New Orleans through that lens, but not solely about homicide. It’s also about seeing the city, and parts of the city that you wouldn’t normally see, or haven’t seen thus far

It’s the second half, the other shoe to a project I did called One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana. I documented in the Louisiana prisons for a number of years, formal portraits of prisoners and that project was in response to the homicide of my mother in 1988 so this is the other part of that. I don’t know if it’s the other half but it’s another part of it.

The street kind of blurred behind it

In this photograph we are inside the Olive Meat Market, and we’re looking through the double doors, we’re looking at the back of a no-smoking sign, no loitering, there’s a Kool cigarette “wider is smoother” sticker, there’s a “We I.D” there’s “Push” there’s “Secured by ADT,” there’s “Big Shot Cola” and we’re looking through this kind of smudged plate glass doorway and you can see the street kind of blurred behind it and there’s a car and a house across the street and this is the location where a young man, 19, named Agison was leaving the Olive Meat Market and when he stepped on the other side of these doors was grabbed by a man and was used as a human shield and was killed in a drive-by shooting.

One of the murders was committed with a tire iron, the other with a gun

There were two murders here, it’s interesting, one of the murders was committed with a tire iron the other with a gun, and I started to notice that if the murder was in the 70s and 80s it was a lot more likely to be committed by a beating or a stabbing, or some other form of murder rather than gunshot, the guns really came into play the end of the 80s and the early 90s so now its unusual to be a murder by beating, its almost entirely gunshot now.

There’s cats claw climbing the wall

This is an image in Treme. A man was beaten to death here and another man was shot and it’s between the really narrow way between two houses and you can see the rows of air conditioners in the windows, you can see the chain link fence, extending back, and it looks sort of like a human spine to me. There’s cats claw climbing the wall and dangling down and blowing, it’s just New Orleans.

There’s a little heart

This is Holly Grove, this is the site of a big time tips bar and lounge, says “no loitering” in big white hand painted letters, there’s a crime stoppers sign in the window behind the bars and on the pavement in front here it says “RIP Ralph,” there’s a little heart, and there was an unidentified man shot on the sidewalk here, and then a number of years ago there were two men at the bar that were killed. One of the men’s name was Ivory White.

Some of them have a lot more homicides than two, double, triple, quadruple, who knows what I haven’t discovered yet. I found my information a Times-Picayune newspaper. I have thousands and thousands of pages and mapping them, trying to plot them on a map and then go and photograph in these neighborhoods, becomes a big scramble. Sometimes I will discover that there are additional murders in a place after I photographed it.

The Circle of Confusion

These prints are 49 inches high, by about 62 inches across. When I started photographing these sites I thought I would use the really early method of wet plate collodion. It’s on a glass plate and you have to develop the image before it dries. I found myself in June and July in New Orleans, out in the field, in the hood, in a makeshift darkroom with a lot of ether fumes, about 130 degrees and realized I was about to pass out in there. So I went home and I have an old 8 x 10 Deardorff Camera that I’d never used before and I had bought a lot of old lenses on eBay, so I started throwing all these lenses on this 8 x 10 camera and one of the lenses formed a perfect circle. It didn’t cover the entire film plane, so you see what the lens sees in its entirety, its surrounded by this little bit of fall-off called “the circle of confusion,” I don’t know, it images the city in a slightly different way, it does something to the grid, it reinforces the void. I thought “yes this is it” so these are all circles, all of these images.

That was the largest silver gelatin that I could have with the exception of 55 inch high silver gelatin, so there are several that are 49 inches high. I’ve always liked small images, I didn’t really see any reason to have really huge photographs. My prison images were all 4 x 5 inches, they were all hand printed on metal so you get to hold the images in your hand. I really loved that idea of small intimate, like family photographs, but there’s something about these, when they’re larger, you walk up to the circle and it almost feels like you’re going to go head first into it, so the larger they get, the more I like them, that’s why they’re this large

It’s the Tooth for an Eye dis-archive

I really like people to be able to touch work. I think it transforms work. Also I’m very interested in text and the way that text transforms photography, so what I have here, big heavy blue canvas covered ledgers that hold about 30 images each. They’re 17 x 22 inches, so you open them they’re heavy, you cart them around. They’re on a specially made table that’s a little over 12 feet long, and then there are additional ledgers in a cabinet close by, so you open these and on the right side of the ledger will be an image and on the left side is a blank page, that I stamped with a rubber stamp and it’s the Tooth for an Eye dis-archive. Its an archive but it’s not an archive. It’s a subjective archive so there’s a numbering system and it begins with the location. So, in this instance, it says 3700 Benefit St, and that’s in the Desire section of New Orleans, September 6th, 1993, and Rene Robinson, it gives you a date, and it gives you a name or names, and a lot of times there are multiple dates and multiple names so you might look at one of these images and it looks really quite banal, you wouldn’t guess that anything had happened there. I’m using very very slow film, its ASA 6, so there’s very little humanity in here, well, maybe there’s very few humans in here, there’s a lot of blur, there’s car blurs, vegetative blurs, human blurs, but primarily it just looks like an empty space.

There’s 6 ledgers. When you look at them, so here’s one, it’s 1900 Foucher St. and its January 28th, 2008 Henry Butler the Fourth and then there’s a place for notes and it says gunshot wound to the head, so if you looked at this image, you’re looking down a sidewalk and you see some steps in the distance, and you see a big cyprus tree on the right hand side, and you see a small house on the left hand side, and it looks, you know, pretty uninteresting, or certainly non-ominous. But then you read that someone was killed here, and the text transforms the image, I hope.

He was the drummer in the Hot 8 Brass Band

In one of the ledgers, there’s the image “Danillie and Josephine” where five young men were massacred in an SUV not long after Katrina, which spurred Governor Blanco to send the national guard back in to try and quell the violence. Dinerall Shavers’murder. He was the drummer in the Hot 8 brass band and taught music in New Orleans, a wonderful young man, I think he was 22 or 24 who was picking up his step son and his step son was in an altercation with another young guy and the guy ran out behind the car and fired into the car and killed Dinerall. And that sparked a huge march of thousands of people in New Orleans on City Hall and stood on the steps of Mayor Nagin’s administration and demanded that something be done about the violence in the city.

For the prison work I had a steel cabinet made, and when I started doing this, I had several people say “nobody really wants to look at these prison portraits, but if you are going to go ahead with this project, you need to print them really large and you need to tone them brown” and I just couldn’t bring myself to do that, because every time I picked up handfuls of these images and touched them, it was a completely different experience, you’d look at the portrait and turn it over and read information about the person, their age, where they were born, how long they’d been in prison, never the crime they committed, it changed everything for me, I did want to have that here, with this project as well, I wanted to be able to touch the work, and it’s a public document, but on the other hand it’s a very subjective and personal reading of these crimes and this city.

One is labeled “Family” and one is labeled “Friends”

Around the corner here there are two video players, and these are based on the small metal frames that appear on some graves and tombs in Italy, France, in New Orleans. There’s a little covered frame, so when you lift the cover, you’ll see like an enameled black and white, sometimes color portrait of the deceased. I had them fabricated. They’re cast, inside all of these, I have a video player, one is labeled “Family” and one is labeled “Friends” and these are friends and families of homicide victims in New Orleans. So there’s no sound and the individuals are just staring into the camera for 10-15 seconds. A lot of times when you open it, you think it’s a still, but sometimes they’ll blink or move a little bit, and you realize that they’re video.

This came about because after my mother was murdered, and after 10 years there was finally a trial, and at the end of that trial, I was offered the opportunity of making a victim impact statement, and it was an incredibly cathartic experience to be able to stand up. Before I did that I thought “it doesn’t make any difference, she’s gone, this is over, it doesn’t make any difference” except it made a huge difference to be able to stand up and say “that was my mother, this is how that act–that greedy, stupid act–affected my life” and so this is just a way to allow the family and friends of people who have also lost their loved ones and friends to just stand up and witness to that, so I hope it helps, I think it does.

We got married up on that porch

This is Villere Street. That’s where we got married up on that porch, that overlooks North Villere Street between Arts and Music Streets. There were a lot of these abandoned houses that were taken over, and there were a lot of art installations that were sort of spontaneous on this street, so there was a history of that. Four boys were killed on this street, four maybe more. Across the street there was an art installation by Mel Chin. He made all of this play money, and he sent it all over the United States and had people draw on it. Then he went around the country in an armored car and collected all this money and brought it back to this little house here, which has a gigantic safe door that’s been constructed on this tiny cottage that was abandoned after Katrina, then he loaded it all back up in this armored car and took it to Washington, to Congress and unloaded it and put it on the steps of Congress and it represented the amount of money it would take to decontaminate the soil of lead in New Orleans and there’s a huge correlation between the volume of lead contamination and violence in the society, so that’s that spot.

I just go up to the spot and stand there for a while

I just go up to the spot and stand there for a while, try out a few shots, sometimes not. In this one here I got ladder and photographed over the fence. A young woman named Jessica Hawk was stabbed to death in her home.  I went back a second time to photograph there. But I wanted to look down on it, if I could have afforded it, I would have one of those crane things, cherry pickers, that’s what I wanted. So I rigged up a ladder and put a tray on it and a screw assembly and I tried to get up there on this ladder and photograph as much as possible. But with a large wooden 8 x 10 camera, it’s a little difficult, but I did as much of that as I could, because I really liked looking down.

This is the location where Adolph Grimes the 3rd was killed in front of his grandmothers house, it was in the wee hours of January 1st 2010, I think, and he was waiting to go out and a whole group of plain clothes policeman shot him 14 times, 12 times in the back, his grandmother told me that his car was parked right where my camera was, and as I was taking this shot, there’s a bush there and the bush started moving in the wind and the exposure is very slow so its kind of like a spirit for me and in this case its under federal investigation now in New Orleans.

Banksy came to New Orleans

This is on Saint Claude. Banksy came to New Orleans to protest the Grey Ghost, who is this man in New Orleans who goes around and obliterates all graffiti that he comes across including murals. So Banksy heard about this and came to town and all these incredible pieces showed up all over town, and the Grey Ghost came and obliterated some of those as well. This is the Masonic Lodge across the street, one of my favorite buildings in New Orleans and this is an instance where I just wanted to document this piece, and so I took the image and I went home and sure enough, I started looking through the records, and there was a murder at this corner too.

We’re looking in the ledger now, this is the 2600 bloc of Alvar st, its in the Florida projects in the 9th ward, and in one block there’s November 26th 1989, Rene Frenan, 19, November 25th 1992 Milton Bridges, 29, February 2nd 1993 Randall Hill, 23, June 23rd 1993 Elaine Van Buren, 44 December 20th 1993, Kevin Philips 30, November 24th 1994 Thanksgiving Day, George Eclar, 25, shot 1994 dies 1996, Kenneth Paine, 2, August 27th 2002, Clifford Faulk, 30, these are just the individuals that I located in the paper on one block.

Pretty much what’s going on

There’s an image here and it’s inside a store, and it’s got a po’ boy painted on the side and it says “Po boys” and then there’s the po boy sandwich underneath it and then a little closer carved inside of the wall it says “fuck you” so it says “Fuck you Po Boys” which is pretty much what’s going on, and at this site Milton Marclene, 26, was killed October 18, 2006. In my notes I have “gunshot.” The state’s witness Derrick Jack, 19, was murdered before he could testify against Marclene’s killer in court, so this young kid, 19, saw the murder, was warned not to say anything to the police, stood up, and was willing to testify against the murderers, they were due in court, there was an evacuation, a hurricane evacuation following Katrina and before it could get to court again, this kid was murdered.

The poet, C.D Wright

The title “Tooth for an Eye” came from the poet, C.D. Wright and the line from Julia Reed’s novel, “Living in New Orleans is not unlike living in the Old Testament,” the two sort of merged and came out the title. C.D. Wright and I have collaborated on both of these projects, “Tooth for an Eye” and “One Big Self.

I just twirled it around, focused it, exposed it

This is La Petit Motel, just off Tulane Avenue, and I read that a young woman from Marrero which is outside New Orleans, was found murdered in one of the motel rooms, so I was on the balcony walkway and photographing out and I noticed behind me that the motel room door was open and so I just turned the camera around and photographed inside the motel room, and there’s a broken mirror, and there’s a Kleenex and a box, and there’s a paper cup and a TV and the bed isn’t made, and you can see the deadbolt on the door in the right hand sliver of the image.

The maid was across the street and she was glaring at me and then she started walking toward me and it was a 90 second exposure, so I was trying to get my exposure made so I just twirled it around, focused it, exposed it, counted, hoped that she wasn’t going to get there before the exposure was completed.

It would sort of enter you

This is 1800 Marigny Street, 7th Ward. Marty Edwards, 30, was murdered here. June 30, 2004. The image is of a vacant lot but in the foreground are a double set of steps that go up to what was a shotgun double and its been demolished now, so the notes for this say, “gunshot on July 3rd, Cuffin Grady, 26, was fatally shot while attending Edwards’ Memorial party, police later announced that Edwards was responsible for the 2002 murder of popular youth baseball coach LoShawn Kujo Kojo, 33, in front of his young ball team,” and later I learned that Mr. Kojo was in a shootout near the spot where he was killed in front of his ball team, a number of years earlier, another man was killed and he was injured in that shootout. It’s sort of an ongoing, circular, cycle of violence.

I just wanted there to be a sense that it’s not about the individual place, it’s about the cumulative power of these acts. It’s difficult to absorb that. So I thought if you could look at a large number of them on a wall, that it would sort of enter you, so that’s why I decided to do this.


Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish at the Jack Shainman Gallery through Feb 5

Listen to Deborah Luster: One Big Self from the Hidden World of Girls

All photos courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, NYC

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One Comment

I love the RIP Ralph- it’s as if all that was left of someones grief was a can of spray paint. Each letter spelled out with lacquer and tears, love left behind for all to remember.

Shannon Carner


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