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Book Review: Before (During) After: Louisiana Photographers’ Visual Reactions to Hurricane Katrina, Edited by Elizabeth Kleinveld

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Everyone who was in Southeast Louisiana or on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 has memories of that time; for many of us those memories remain fresh. In Mississippi, towns along the Gulf Coast were virtually wiped out; there Katrina hit directly. In parts of Southern Louisiana, terrible hurricane damage was experienced. In New Orleans, the damage was more by man than nature.

Following years of corruption, the do-nothing levee board continued to do nothing despite dire warnings that the levees would break — not if, it was a matter of when. Still they ignored the engineers and the architects, and refused to reinforce the levees. The levees’ vulnerability was no secret — newspapers regularly reported the problem and issued frightening predictions.  Yes, the winds of Katrina damaged New Orleans, but those floods in the Ninth Ward and the surrounding area were the direct result of negligence.

Before (During) After is an elegant collection of photographs from that awful time. Twelve photographers contributed photos and essays:  Jennifer Shaw, Frank Relle, Lori Waselchuk, Rowan Metzner, Samuel Portera, David Rae Morris, Jonathan Traviesa, Eric Julien, Zack Smith, Elizabeth Kleinveld, Mark J. Sindler, and Thomas Neff. Their photographs are a melancholy record of both the damages (some small, some enormous) and their own feelings and experiences. Rowan Mezner’s picture of a fish slammed up against a screen and a green watering can that landed in a tree sum up the turmoil.

Before Katrina, Zack Smith was shooting (with his camera) musicians; when Katrina arrived his “world was gone,” as we see in poignant photos of a house destroyed with a crushed,  inverted truck between it and the ground. His “after” photo depicts a young woman holding a battered LP. No words are needed to explain the destruction Katrina triggered.

Volumes are spoken by Lori Waselchuk’s photo of a cooler next to a hole cut through a roof. The effect of all these portraits, still lifes, and landscapes is an understanding of the human experience and loss. Some of the photographs contain images that people who were not there might not understand, such as the Xs on the doors and walls of houses that were checked for bodies, accompanied by numbers indicating if and how many were found.

Introductory and closing essays add to the raw images of the photographs, expanding our intellectual appreciation of all that happened and why, but do not achieve the same emotional impact. The pictures are dramatic, unsettling, odd, funny, crazy, hopeful, and hopeless. Next year, the Louisiana State Museum in New Orleans will present an exhibit from Before (During) After. (Next month, the museum will host “Living with Hurricanes: Katrina and Beyond.”)

Bottom Line: Would I buy Before (During) After? Yes, it is a dramatic collection of moments caught on film — terrible, devastating, and somehow beautiful.

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