A bulletin board is a functional object, hardly one of much aesthetic interest.
Until a hurricane gets a hold of it.
"When it has been under water for three or four weeks, it becomes like a collage," said Chapel Hill photographer John Rosenthal. "Colors change. Pieces of information change. Paper dissolves. The board itself turns color -- all of a sudden a structure is created from havoc and bacteria. It is utterly striking."
Those transformed objects are among the images Rosenthal photographed in the winter of 2007, when he traveled to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, one of the parts of the city most severely devastated by Hurricane Katrina in late August of 2005.
An exhibit of large-format photographs he took during that trip will be on display from Thursday through Aug. 15 at UNC's Center for the Study of the American South at the Love House and Hutchins Forum, 410 East Franklin Street. A reception for "Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans" is scheduled for Thursday from 4 to 6 p.m.
Despite media reports and accounts relayed by friends of the destruction that Katrina wrought, the reality of what Rosenthal found shocked him. But what rocked his thoughts and emotions even more was the paradox he found there. Media reports had convinced him that the Lower Ninth Ward, even before the storm, was one of the most blighted, dangerous slums in America.
That was not what he found.
"There was such a disparity between what I heard and what I saw," Rosenthal said.
He knew there were dangerous types in the ward, but what struck him was the number of people who had lived there who were retired, grandparents, children, parents, people with a great love of their community.
"I wanted to get down on film the discrepancy between what I had heard and what I was seeing," said Rosenthal, who said that one of the functions of art is to change assumptions and lay bare the truth.
A month after his first visit, Rosenthal returned to the ward. He found that many of the structures he had photographed had vanished.
"They had been torn down, and suddenly there was a bit of imperative," he said. "I began photographing buildings as fast as I could. There were so many structures that were architecturally interesting and signs of a real community life. I wanted to capture those things, and I kept going back."
Each time he returned, another chunk of the ward had vanished. By the time he was done, almost every building had vanished. (Check out www.johnrosenthal.co
m for a very powerful essay by the photographer about photographing the Ward.)
The Center for the Study of the American South, also home to UNC's Southern Oral History Program and the Program on Public Life, is a perfect place for this exhibit to debut. The Center fosters scholarship on the past, present and future of the South, looking at the history, culture, and contemporary experience of the region.
Lisa Eveleigh coordinates public information and outreach for the Center. She also happens to be from Bay St. Louis, Miss., one of the towns in Katrina's path. The hurricane filled Eveleigh's home there with three feet of water. That damage, she said, was due to a natural disaster. Not so what happened to New Orleans.
"New Orleans had a manmade disaster," Everleigh said. "Levees can work and work right, and I don't feel like this country has in interest in making levees work. To me, these photographs are documenting a place that is being forgotten, and John Rosenthal makes that point. Why is it being forgotten and why is it so easy to forget?"
Harry Watson, a professor of history at UNC, is the director of the Center.
"John Rosenthal is a powerful photographer with an enormous gift for conveying human emotion and character," Watson said. "He has a great sense of visual design and a strong bond with nature, and his photography conveys the power of nature, its destructive power, its healing power, and by implication, its power over us."
The opening this Friday will also celebrate the release of a special issue of the Center's nonprofit quarterly journal, "Southern Cultures," published by the University of North Carolina Press. The Hurricane Katrina issue features photographs, essays and poetry.
About 40 of Rosenthal's Ninth Ward photographs will be on exhibit at the New Orleans African American Museum from Aug, 29 to Oct. 31.
One of the things that really struck me about these photographs, beside their being absolutely visually spellbinding, is that there are no people in them, just evidence of people. This presence-by-absence is especially powerful in a photograph called "Tennessee Street."
It is the piece that Rosenthal cited when I asked him which of his pieces from the Lower Ninth Ward he kept returning to, kept thinking about.
The photo depicts an empty stoop with a flowerpot suspended from a piece of wrought iron fencing.
"It is all that is left of the house," Rosenthal said. "On the top of the stoop is a chair. It looks like a contemplative altar. I take it to be someone's personal memorial space. I figure the chair is there because someone comes and sits in it. If there is a chair, there is contemplation. It is one of the pictures that has a background of ruined homes all around it. It is a big, geographical picture."
It could be any one of us not sitting in that chair. We are the South.