Photographer Kevin Greenblat
by JC Trebon
I’m looking for people who are surprising— heartbreaking—or beautiful in a terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself.
– Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon’s statement rings true for photographer Kevin Greenblat. Greenblat’s keen ability to capture a powerful duality in his subjects is the hallmark of his work. The impact of 22 photographs from the series Child of the Mississippi (an old nickname for Louisiana), presented at Photo Méthode Gallery can be credited to his immersion into the culturally rich and ethnically enthralling region, Southern Louisiana. “There is an unwavering spirit in this state of diverse backgrounds and cultures that has captivated me ever since my first visit.”
While in college, Kevin Greenblat took a road trip with friends through Louisiana and on to Florida before returning to New York. Stopping for gas in Metairie, Louisiana, he had an intense feeling of strangeness. The sights, the music and the high- pitched energy level made for an unusual, unnerving experience. He left remembering the contagious spirit of people expressing themselves.
Images juxtapose the mundane with the surprising, uncovering an intense contrast—beauty among bleakness, oddity within the ordinary.
In 2003, he began photographing the unbridled spirit that permeated the region—the rituals, cultural identities and theatrical flair of the people: Creoles, Cajuns and Houma Indians. Having lived in Texas now for over 20 years, he speaks of the vast difference in our neighboring state. Louisiana is a different place—culturally, geographically and historically.
Austin-based Greenblat continues to explore the soul of southern Louisiana in what is an ongoing project. Images juxtapose the mundane with the surprising, uncovering an intense contrast—beauty among bleakness, oddity within the ordinary. Such is evident in the haunting femininity Greenblat brilliantly captures in the photograph of Ms. Pearl. Age and pride break forth from the bleak backdrop—the familiar allure of a woman’s boudoir and the mirror’s reflective image. Ms. Pearl, a fixture in the Bywater, one of New Orleans’ poorer neighborhoods, is typical of the spirit Greenblat sees and senses. During Katrina she turned disaster into strength, drawing people together as she provided refuge for many.
Baptism was also shot in Bywater at the Trumpet of Truth Ministry. A decidedly transformative event set against a backdrop of community life shot in black and white presents a dramatic, most compelling image. As a photographer, Greenblat is drawn to such backdrops that have not changed over time. He is not interested in creating narrative but compelling visual imagery. Nor does he desire to make political statements or reflect on tragedies such as Katrina. He wants his work to stand alone detached from experience. Baptism achieves just that.
Explaining why he works only in medium-format black and white film, he notes that “I am by nature fast moving; a visual can change in an instant adding to my tendency to be in a hurry. Abandoning digital, photographing with a Hasselblad and film makes me slow down—wait for something interesting, unique and special.”
Waiting paid off when Greenblat shot Snakes and Baby where he cleverly captured the everyday—the familiar charm of a contented baby being pushed along on the sidewalk. Yet, the ordinary is presented in contrast to the shock one feels seeing the unusual pets—three snakes contently coiled around the adult. A third element completes the strangeness, the fact that the adult’s face is not revealed. In this way, Greenblat avoids the narrative.
Child of the Mississippi demonstrates Greenblat’s social and emotional connection to his subjects as well as his powerful photographic direction. He draws viewers into the imagery by effortlessly capturing and conveying the untold dynamic and being of his subjects.
Despite the sometimes foreign elements, viewers will find relatable familiarity with the individuals as well. Two in particular capture the bold, rich heritage and strong devotion to traditions within distinct cultural groups.
Speak of Mardi Gras, and visions of the celebration in the French Quarter of New Orleans come to mind. Greenblat, though, prefers to experience the authentic Cajun Mardi Gras near Iota which harkens back to an early rural ritual. The celebration focuses on the men—dressed in strange costumes, faces covered, riding on horseback—while women cook and open their homes as the procession moves from place to place. In Iota Mardi Gras Rider, a sense of tension permeates the image. The horse is reared up, the horseman definitely in control; both express a fierce intensity that verges on frightening.
The photograph Chief Dardar of the Houma Nation conveys a far more tranquil moment and invokes a far different emotional reaction. The historic Native American Houma tribe inhabits areas on the east side of the Red River of the South. Greenblat always spends time getting to know a person in hopes of being accepted into his or her world. Such was the case with the Houma chief who invited him into his home.
In the photograph, ritual, tradition and history are captured in this powerfully posed yet graceful image. When this photograph is viewed alongside other photographs from Child of the Mississippi, it becomes evident that Greenblat masterfully conveys the fierce energy radiating from a region’s people whose spirit has over time been beaten, battered, but never broken.
Child of the Mississippi opens at Photo Méthode November 12 and runs through December 22. For more information, please visit www.photomethode.com