A simple, tattooed outline on the arm of Jacob Walker, coupled with the phrase 'bottom of the da boot,' gives Kael Alford's collection its title and most concrete, immutable rendering of Louisiana's southeastern coast. Her photographs speak to both the immediate fallout of Hurricane Katrina and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and the pernicious environmental losses endured by this wetland region over decades. Between 2007 and 2010, Alford photographed in and around the outlying communities of Isle de Jean Charles and Pointe-aux-Chenes, with support from the High Museum of Art's "Picturing the South" commission. Guided by her grandmother's stories of the places where her French and Native American ancestors had once settled, Alford created a vivid, contemporary account of a place and way of life threatened by oil industry extractions and the saltwater that subsequently creeps and pounds inland. Her images contain the signs of violent destruction as well as the gradual degradation of roads and foundations, sacred sites and humble homes, where the boundary between land and sea is shifting and tenuous.
The Choctaw, Houma and other tribes of the Louisiana coast are not recognized or protected by the federal government and thus many whom she met here grappled with the tandem loss of land and lineage. As ancient burial grounds slip under water and families are dispersed from this place by its punishing economic realities, the continuity and community achieved through a shared experience begin to fade. Despite the rich blending of European and Native American ancestry to be found here, Alford discovered that many of those she photographed also identified with broad, pan-Indian symbols. Dream catchers and figurines of heroic chiefs were woven into their home décor while posters and hand drawn depictions of idealized warriors hung like family portrait galleries. While not discussed in the accompanying texts, a strong Christian iconography is the spiritual counterpoint here. Depictions of Jesus Christ run the gamut from the iconic Leonardo da Vinci Last Supper in a shellacked jigsaw puzzle to a decidedly non-Western depiction crowning a display of family photographs arranged on a household organ.
Many Christian metaphors of the ocean also abound, in an altar-like display of sea glass and driftwood and in so many images of fisherman and fish. At the same time, these photographs impart the secular imagery of the sea, as symbol of presence and absence, containment and dissipation. In this place, water conveys and consumes the living and the dead, fresh catch and poisoned piles, as fisherman float on the surface of both bounty and waste. Here where the sea meets the land, oil booms appear as ribbons of futility, shielding one space to the detriment of the other. Alford's crisply colorful and moving photographs also catalog a systematic deterioration of homes and other structures picked apart and turned inside out. Plywood and tarps are the backdrop to an outdoor display of couches and coolers, strings of laundry and salvaged belongings. Before taking on this project, Alford spent ten years as a photojournalist in war-torn Iraq and Eastern Europe. While there is surely much to contrast with that experience, she brings to Louisiana and to this poignant book a telling comprehension of the kinds of stories that both simmer and boil over on their way to uncertain endings.
Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.