Growing up in the icy confines of Endwell, New York, I tried to escape the endless winters and rain all year round by visiting my local library, where I was looking for photography books with pictures of more places. hot.
I remember being delighted by a picture book tracing the Mississippi River from its source in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico. Towards the end of the book, there was a photograph of a flaming gas well emerging from the turbulent waters of the Gulf at dusk. For a boy from the North, seeing this picture was like looking at a distant and exotic land; in the winter cold of upstate New York, I felt warmed by the twilight colors, the mist.
Since arriving in Louisiana in the early 2000s, I have documented the landscape of the last miles of the Mississippi River, in the parish of Plaquemines, Fort Jackson, and Buras, to Port Eads, the last outpost of the river, where the muddy Mississippi meets the blue waters of the Gulf of Mexico.
State Highway 23 ends at the community of Venice, seven miles above Head of Passes, where the river technically ends and splits into three passes that empty into the Gulf. Getting there is not easy. Any location downstream from Venice is only accessible by boat, requiring an experienced guide who can assess the rapidly changing weather and sea conditions.
There is peace and quiet in the parish of Plaquemines, among citrus groves, oil refineries and the salty breeze. Communities continue to rebuild here despite a seemingly endless series of storms and floods, amid an ever-changing landscape.
On an unusually warm winter day in January 2005, I traveled to Pilottown, one nautical mile above Head of Passes. For nearly 100 years, and for most of the 20th century, Pilottown served as the home of river pilots who board freighters and guide them to and from the mouth of the Mississippi.
In its heyday, Pilottown was a thriving community of guides, trappers and fishermen. When I first arrived there, there were only three permanent residents left.
In August of the same year, Hurricane Katrina sent a 15-foot storm surge through Pilottown, destroying almost every structure in the colony. The Associated Branch Pilots, an association whose pilots guide ships from the Gulf to Pilottown, chose to rebuild upstream in Venice. The pilots of Crescent Port, whose pilots guide ships from Pilottown to New Orleans, remained in Pilottown, with no permanent residents returning. Only a few fishing camps have been built there since the storm.
Port Eads, located at the end of the South Pass, 12 miles below Pilottown, was a bustling seaside resort in the late 1800s, and the main commercial entrance to the river, made possible by piers built at the mouth of the pass by James Buchanan Eads. The piers accelerated the flow of water through the pass, causing it to dig its own deep channel. When I first photographed Port Eads, it was a rudimentary, weather-beaten last-ditch marina dotted with a few fishing camps. Its infrastructure appeared to be held together with duct tape and rope.
Many places in the river delta that I have revisited over the years have since disappeared, either because of their remoteness or as a result of storms. Often the only traces are a few stakes sticking out of the water or the decaying frame of a long-abandoned house. Ghost towns like Olga, Oysterville, and Burwood all have their own stories of disappearance. Together, they make up the story of the disappearance of the parish of Plaquemines.
I was living full time with my family in a camp in the Lake Catherine area of the Orleans Parish when Hurricane Katrina hit. I remember thinking that we would be gone maybe three days and return to camp after New Orleans survived another near miss from a major storm. Instead, Katrina took the camp and everything in it, including all of my darkroom gear and a small box of negatives from the start of this project.
Then it was hard to avoid the endless ruin that lingered all around me. But I was determined not to turn my work into an ode to hurricane destruction. I remember being irritated by all the cheap volumes of post-hurricane photographs that suddenly appeared on bookstore shelves and invaded the privacy of losses of particular people, pictures of crumbling interiors and portraits. of storm survivors sitting outside their destroyed homes. When filming this project, I rather looked for beautiful things that were still there despite the storm.
I viewed several of the images in this collection several years before seeing the actual locations. The view of the South Pass from the top of the Port Eads Lighthouse was the one I had had in my mind for over 10 years; I knew from the maps that there was a lighthouse there, and if I could reach it and climb it, I would capture the view I wanted. I finally had my chance at the end of April afternoon in 2008. Standing atop the lighthouse, I was delighted and mesmerized by the view, and half certain that I was dreaming.
Following the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010, I was fortunate enough to secure a series of assignments for a coalition of conservation organizations called the Gulf Restoration Network, which flew to the mouth of the River and the Chandeleur Islands to search for evidence of the spill, which produces a number of aerial photos. Aerial photography can be difficult to achieve – the thick summer haze requires a polarized filter, and any exposure below 1/800 results in blur on the ground. I asked pilots to follow certain routes corresponding to sights I had imagined years before, looking at maps in the library in my hometown. For technical advice, I consulted David King Gleason’s “Over New Orleans” afterword.
At the end of 2012, I learned that two Delta structures that I had photographed over the years – the Associated Branch Pilot headquarters in Pilottown and the “Happy Ending” camp in Port Eads – were gone. The pilots’ house had been demolished and moved after the pilots decided to move upstream to Venice, marking the end of an era of piloting. Port Eads camp disappeared for unknown reasons, destroyed by Hurricane Isaac in 2012 or simply demolished to make way for another building.
Whenever I visit the last miles of the river and the Bird’s Foot Delta, I find myself quietly amazed by the austere, minimalist beauty; humiliated by the history of families who made their living at the “end of the world”, as it is sometimes called; and soothed by the constant and gentle whistling of the wind in the great reed cane. Being there is like being in a dream that I have been carrying with me since I was a teenager.
Much has been written about the slow demise of Louisiana’s coastal area, but my own experience has shown it to be a place of constant change. Where some older communities have disappeared, other groups of fishing and hunting camps have appeared in new places, only to change again when another storm passes. There is a sense of serenity at the end of the river – with a rich and fascinating history, which has kept me coming back, time and time again, for almost 20 years.