Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Storm stories

On Aug. 29, what was possibly the largest hurricane of its strength ever recorded breached the levee system that protected the city of New Orleans. What followed were circumstances no one could have predicted. More than 1.5 million people were displaced. The damages were estimated at $75 million. Hurricane Katrina has gone down in history as one of the most destructive and devastating natural disasters the United States has ever seen.

A part of the recovery effort following the hurricane was the city’s Look and Leave program, in which New Orleans officials allowed residents from badly ruined areas to briefly visit their homes and assess the damage. This past November, Chicago photographer and social worker Jane Fulton Alt documented her two-week period working as a support counselor with photographs of the devastation

The DePaul University Art Museum, 2350 N. Kenmore Ave., currently has an exhibit titled Look and Leave: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina that is made up of a collection of Alt’s work, which has managed to poignantly capture the remains of the once culturally vibrant New Orleans.

Alt, who provided assistance and counseling to 9th-Ward residents of the city, says in an NPR interview that the hardest part about volunteering was “hearing what happened to people, about how hard they had worked throughout their lives and nothing was left. I was so upset about what had happened to these people that I had to go and take photographs. I had to make images that would talk about what I had seen.”

According to museum director Louise Lincoln, there are several unique aspects to the exhibit, including the fact there are no people in any of the photos.

“It’s still a sensitive issue,” she says. “Jane was careful not to invade anyone’s privacy while still taking powerful pictures.”

Instead, Alt’s photographs focus on single objects that she came upon while driving through some of the abandoned neighborhoods.

One example is the remnants of framed pictures lost to the disaster, faded to the point where the faces in them are blurred beyond distinction.

Another photo shows an open book that appears as though it has melded with the ground, with only a few readable words beneath a layer of dry mud.

The reasoning behind such pictures was Alt’s desire to show the individual losses that were suffered instead of showing destruction en masse.

“When people see the bigger images on TV, it’s easier to distance yourself from that,” Alt says. “I’m interested in personal objects that I feel would tell a story.”

Lincoln agrees that the scale of the pictures helps visitors identify with Katrina victims more easily.

“There is a definite sense of intimacy, a sense of the human presence that is no longer there,” she says. “It’s quite moving.”

Another theme in the exhibit is that while all the photographs were taken in color, most are so muted that it is difficult to tell the range in hues.

One picture shows a forgotten teddy bear that is almost unrecognizable against the gray, cracked ground. The colors that are most noticeable are in the form of broken signs or faded graffiti.

“The area is covered almost completely by gray mud, dust and residue,” Lincoln says. “It’s almost like looking at the pictures through a dirty windshield.”

Lincoln says often there is a conflict between the personal experience and the aesthetic representation, something that Alt has managed to combine easily in her photography.

“She synthesizes her time there into art,” she says. “It ‘s a wonderful work to view and show.”

A comment book is available to all visitors to express their thoughts on the exhibit. One comment reads, “Beautiful, terrible photos. The lack of people in them helps us to feel the sadness and loneliness of the residents of New Orleans.” Lincoln says this is just one of many examples of the positive feedback the exhibit has received over the past weeks.

“We have had those that have dealt with the hurricane come in and tell us how moved they were by the photography,” she says.

Lincoln says she hopes this exhibit will help keep the Katrina crisis in people’s minds and that they will remember and support the continuing cause to rebuild what was lost.

“So many things are happening in our world that it’s made easy to move on to the next big news story,” she says. “We can’t forget that this is something that will take several years to recover from.”

The museum is hosting a fundraiser event Feb. 28 from 5-8 p.m. to help support hurricane relief efforts. In what Lincoln calls a “celebration of New Orleans history,” the reception will have a Mardi Gras theme.

Look and Leave: New Orleans in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina will be open to the public until March 12. The DePaul Art Museum is open Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Friday, 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; and Saturday and Sunday, 12-5 p.m. Admission is free.

Medill sophomore Dani Garcia is a PLAY writer. She can be reached at [email protected].

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