New Orleans Portrayed: A Personal Look at a Beloved City
Featured New Release
by David Spielman
David Spielman has lived in New Orleans for decades, and yet he still discovers new things in the city. This summer, UL Press is proud to announce his latest collection of photographs highlighting the people and places that make the Crescent City so beloved by denizens and visitors alike.
UL Press (ULP): How did you get started in photography? Have you always wanted to do this?
David Spielman (DS): As a 15-year-old high school student, after swim team workout, I noticed a couple of seniors at their lockers looking at their cameras. They were in the camera club, though I didn’t know that at the time. Walking over to them, I was curious, and asked if I could have a look. Tolerating a sophomore, they allowed me to hold and look through the camera. In that instant I knew I wanted to be a photographer. That is how I found photography. To go by this line, sometimes attributed to Mark Twain, “The two most important days in your life are they day you were born and the day you find out why.” I am very lucky. I learned “why” very early in my life.
ULP: What is the central theme of New Orleans Portrayed? How did you put this collection of photographs together?
DS: My focal point was the 300th anniversary of New Orleans. The idea was to try and create a window for future generations to see what New Orleans looked like at this point in its history. New Orleans has been my home for over forty years, but I wanted to try to look at it with fresh eyes, digging deeper and exploring new areas; turning left instead of right; traversing the city at different times and during various weather conditions. In our ever-changing world, I wanted to capture some of the unique faces and places that make New Orleans so different and special. So, I spent over a year crisscrossing the city looking and re-looking at what I knew and didn’t know.
ULP: Why did you decide to use black and white film for this project? How does that affect the images?
DS: I find color to be distracting. If someone is wearing a red dress or a bold patterned shirt, your eye travels there first, possibly keeping you from looking and appreciating the full composition. Also, sadly, color isn’t permanent, the color prints and negatives will fade in a few years. Black and white is archival. Robert Frank, a renowned photographer, said, “Black and white are the colors of photography. To me they symbolize the alternatives of hope and despair to which mankind is forever subjected.”
ULP: Why do you think people continue to be fascinated with New Orleans? What draws you to the city?
DS: For all intents and purposes, living in New Orleans doesn’t make sense. Hurricanes are a constant threat. We live below sea level, in high humidity, and tolerate miserably hot summers. Having said that, there isn’t any place that offers up the diverse food, music, architecture, people, and characters that are found here. We forget the downsides with so many upsides to life in this city.
"Street Car and Tracks" -- Photo by David Spielman, all rights reserved.
ULP: New Orleans was hit especially hard by the coronavirus. What is life like in the city today, and how does that affect your work?
DS: Yes, we have been hit hard because of our local lifestyle with festivals each weekend and our need to be social at every turn. We are a tourist town, so the pandemic has truly flattened the economy for the whole industry and most types of businesses. We have all had to change our ways. I have been spending my time trying to find pictures that tell the COVID-19 story. It is difficult to find anything unique because everyone in this country and around the world are in the same boat. On the positive side, the French Quarter has never looked better. The streets are clean, there's no litter, and it's quiet. However, that in itself doesn’t make a very compelling picture. To me, it has taken on the feel of a sci-fi movie, where space creatures have captured the population. I feel like I am on a movie set and everyone is inside waiting for the director to yell “action!” Then, everyone pours out of the doors and music starts, and so on.
ULP: How does New Orleans Portrayed compare to your other books?
DS: It's similar in many ways, because they all have themes and cover certain topics. But New Orleans Portrayed has a lot more elements and levels to it. It was like putting together a puzzle; all the little parts had to fit together to create a larger, well-balanced body of work. I am very pleased with the final product.
ULP: Who are your artistic or photographic influences? Who or what inspires you?
DS: I’m inspired by and drawn to all kinds of artists: writers, painters, musicians, chefs, and so on. Each form has its own disciplines and variations that set it apart. I’m always looking, listening, and feeling what I can and learning so much from how practitioners execute their craft. Photographers from the WPA, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Gordon Parks, French photographers Henri Cartier-Bresson, Doisneau, and Brassai have all inspired me greatly. Writers like Hemingway, David McCullough, Walter Isaacson. Musicians such as Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the Beatles—not forgetting Bach, Beethoven, and many others. The point of is that I listen to, look at, and try and absorb and draw upon all this talent and do my part to add to the richness of it.
ULP: What kind of camera equipment do you use? Why?
DS: Leica M cameras, because they are small and quiet, and they have great optics. They allow me to be and shoot almost anywhere without drawing attention to my work and myself.
ULP: In addition to photography, you also give lectures and presentations. What advice do you have for those who are interested in photography but not sure how or where to get started?
DS: My advice is to take pictures, lots of pictures from lots of angles; look at all kinds of pictures trying to figure out what you like and don’t like—all the while trying to find your visual voice.
ULP: Where can people see more of your work?
DS: The best place to see my work is in my gallery, located in the Garden District of New Orleans across for the famous Commander’s Palace Restaurant, 1332 Washington Avenue, 70130. Or they can visit my website, DavidSPIELMAN.com
About New Orleans Portrayed, from David Spielman:
Dorothea Lange said, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.” My job as a photographer is not to direct or manipulate a picture, it’s to capture something that presents itself to me The architecture, light, shapes and people have to come together in a special way within the boundaries of my viewfinder. A good photograph is the culmination of life lived, books read, music heard, food eaten, and experiences had.
New Orleans Portrayed represents thousands of hours of wandering and wondering, with good days and bad light, with bad days and good light. Photographers don’t find the picture; pictures find the photographer. As Walker Evans said, “Good photography is unpretentious.” These ideas continue to inspire and drive my work.
About David Spielman:
Originally from Tulsa Oklahoma, David Spielman has called New Orleans home for the past four decades. He has worked on photographic assignments on six continents, ranging from fine art to hard news photographs published in books and journals. His work has been exhibited in such venues as the Historic New Orleans Collection, the Margaret Mitchell House, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Whatcom Museum. His previously published books include: Southern Writers, Katrinaville Chronicles, When Not Performing, and The Katrina Decade. In 2016, Spielman was awarded the Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities Documentary Photographer of the Year award. In addition to photography, Spielman often gives lectures and presentations about his work, offering a very personal view of his New Orleans.