E Cooper Housing Project Central City 2005, 2006. Photo courtesy of Lewis Watts

Years after enduring a natural disaster, the city of New Orleans remains full of hope and culture. UC Santa Cruz photography professor Lewis Watts revisits the city before and after Hurricane Katrina in his exhibit “New Orleans Suite,” which opened Oct. 3 at the Sesnon Gallery at Porter College.

Watts said he aimed to capture the richness of culture as well as the enduring spirit of New Orleans residents. He said the preservation of the city culture has been the job of musicians and New Orleans natives.

“[They’ve] actually been kind of responsible for something that’s more genuine,” Watts said. “Trying to keep those cultures alive has been one of the signature marks of recovery in New Orleans.”

Watts received his undergraduate degree at UC Berkeley, where he would later return to teach for 23 years. During graduate school, Watts discovered his interest in photography after working at a photo lab. Even though photography was not in his original plans, within two weeks of taking his first class, Watts knew that photography was his passion.

Originally an architecture major, Watts is captivated by the endurance of the people, the buildings and structures that decorate New Orleans.

Several photos depict faces of buildings that are covered in spray painted phrases that say “one occupant” and other similar phrases.

His photograph, “To the Ancestors,” displays two older women pouring out liquid. Dressed in black and white, the people in the photograph are paying respects to the deceased, a tradition kept alive by families in New Orleans.

Norman Locks, another photography professor at UCSC, attended the gallery opening and admired the scale of the photographs.

“When they’re small, you recognize people. When they’re large, you recognize the community,” Locks said.

All of Watts’s photographs were captured in black and white film, an aspect that director and curator of the Sesnon Gallery, Shelby Graham, said she hopes to spotlight in “New Orleans Suite.”

“Lewis brings back that tradition of photography, and yet I can still call this contemporary because he is photographing a historically provocative subject,” Graham said.

Photo courtesy of Lewis Watts

The photograph titled “Raising the Casket, Funeral Procession Through the Tremè,” captures several hands carrying a casket in a funeral procession. During the procession, a jazz band would lead with somber music, followed by the second line band, which played after the body was buried. Watts said this was to “represent that they no longer carried the burden of life.”

Watts ties together emotional content with traditional technique, said gallery manager and assistant curator Mark Shunney.

“[Watts] related to the early American photographer, that used black and white to document the social struggles of what this country is trying to find itself in,” Shunney said.

As his photographs of jazz musicians were debuted at the Sesnon on Oct. 3, New Orleans-style bands “2nd Line Jazz” band and “MJ’s Brass Boppers” brought jazz culture to life.

In addition to “New Orleans Suite,” “New Work from Cuba” will also be displayed in the Watts’s exhibition. A smaller room of the Sesnon Gallery has photographs from Cuba that demonstrate the vibrant atmosphere of a country that is “undergoing rapid and constant change.”

In “New Work from Cuba,” snapshots of Cubans’ everyday lives are accentuated by Cuban music playing in the background. A piece titled “Religious Procession Old Havana 2010” shows a man kneeling in the middle of a busy walkway displaying printed religious imagery on a figure of a saint.

Watts said the richness in culture makes Cuba and New Orleans very similar.


Both New Orleans Suite and New Work from Cuba will be displayed at the Porter College Sesnon Gallery until Nov. 21.