New Orleans and the 'Super Gras'

  • 1 February 2013
  • From the section In Pictures
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The Superdome in New Orleans

Photographer Stephen McLaren is best known for his pictures capturing amusing moments and juxtapositions on the streets of the UK, yet a visit to the United States offered him a chance to visit New Orleans, home of Mardi Gras and host to this weekend's Super Bowl.

More than seven years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, America will once more focus its attention on New Orleans as the San Francisco 49ers meet the Baltimore Ravens on 3 February.

Here McLaren offers his thoughts on his brief visit to the city.

Stephen McLaren

The inhabitants of New Orleans, Louisana, are restless and playful with language. They speak loudly and warmly to each other in an accent that alternates between a drawling slang and a polite and mannered form of address.

They talk almost incessantly to visitors, which can be disconcerting if you are in the mood for peace and quiet, but that's why I know they have several nicknames for their beloved hometown.... N'awlins, The Crescent City, The Big Easy, and America's Most Interesting City.

"Interesting" is an understatement as New Orleans has its own way of doing things, it is literally a law unto itself. Want to smoke in a bar or club? No problem. Want to drink 24 hours? Sure, that's fine too. Want to bring the city to halt with parades and parties for weeks on end each springtime? Of course, that's Mardi Gras! The rest of America looks on bewildered then sends its more fun-loving and inquisitive citizens to the French Quarter for a piece of the action.

Last week I was back in New Orleans for my first visit in 20 years, and although in town to curate a photography exhibition for the New Orleans Photo Alliance, I was also there to take my own photographs of a city I knew to be incredibly photogenic and full of warm-hearted, fun-loving people. I was also keen to see how N'awlins was putting the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina - and the subsequent devastating flood - behind it.

Not being a sports fan I hadn't realised that the city's iconic sporting venue, the Superdome, is hosting this weekend's American football final, the Super Bowl. Only seven years ago the dome was serving as the city's main respite for those unable to escape the malevolence of Katrina, but has now had a new lick of champagne-gold paint and once again looks cutting-edge and gaudy, unlike the sad and battered structure of August 2005.

All round town TV crews were setting up studios, shops were stocking up on NFL merchandise, and football fans were invading hotels. There was a mighty buzz about the place and the term "Super Gras" was adroitly coined by locals to celebrate the fact that the Super Bowl was coinciding with the Mardi Gras parades season.

New Orleans has a rich and complex past. Documentary photography with its here-and-now visual concerns finds it difficult to deal with complex histories of peoples, places and cities, so to spend a mere week trying to flesh out some of the idiosyncrasies and cultural fault-lines in a series of photographs was always going to be a daunting task. Thankfully in New Orleans the inhabitants are always pleased to recommend lines of inquiry and I often followed the direction of knowledgeable locals

The ornate St Louis cemeteries with their above-ground tombs were a delight to photograph and looming over it a huge billboard for the state lottery provided added commentary on the money worries of living and dead. The historic Central City district and Oretha Castle Haley street is being revitalised slowly and although a largely black neighbourhood, I was intrigued to find a newspaper posted to a telephone pole reporting a high-society masked ball while across the street was a mural depicting Martin Luther King Jnr.

On St Charles Avenue the first Mardi Gras parades of the year traversed several neighbourhoods both rich and poor, black and white. People of all ages pleaded for those on the floats to throw them plastic beads and much unhealthy food was eaten by all along the route.

On Sunday, the Super Bowl, will give New Orleans the kind of world-wide exposure they have not had since the calamity of 2005. Its population may have declined since then, and many houses and businesses remain derelict, but the spirit of New Orleans lives on in abundance. "Super Gras" indeed.

Here are more of Stephen McLaren's pictures from New Orleans.

You can see more of Stephen McLaren's work on his website.