There’s a black and white photo of Glen David Andrews, clad in a crisp suit and brass band hat, hanging in a breakfast and lunch joint called The Hummingbird in the Northern California town of Fairfax. The restaurant’s owner, Michelle Elmore, took the picture one night more than a decade ago under her porch light in Treme.
Like the name of her restaurant (homage to the now defunct Hummingbird diner on St. Charles Avenue) and the crawfish omelets and chicory coffee she serves there, the photo serves as a reminder of the community that welcomed her and inspired her work documenting New Orleans street culture beginning in the late 1980s.
It’s also one of thousands of images slated to appear in a new set of art books due out in April. In Come See About Me, Elmore’s camera captures the faces, outfits and moves she saw most Sundays on second line parades across town. Let’s Go Get ‘Em is culled from her work with members of the Mardi Gras Indian community. The third book, Ya Heard Me, shines a light on the blinged-out grills and daily life moments of local rappers and their crews in the early to mid–’90s.
Published by Artvoices, the set serves as a mid-career survey for Elmore. As Larry Blumenfeld explains in the foreword to the books, the images collected within them speak to the photographer’s development as a person as much as they reflect her artistic path.
“[The photos] document the friendships that, for Elmore, transformed alienation into a sense of community, of family,” Blumenfeld writes. “They suggest joy and pain in elegant balance. And they pay tribute to the city that turned Elmore into the artist she sought to be, and that lent her art meaning.”
Over the years, that art took on a variety of focuses, but much of the work Elmore produced grew out of and along with personal relationships with the people she was shooting.
In a way, she said in a recent phone call from Fairfax, “I based it all on sentimental energy.”
A self-taught photographer whose work has appeared at the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Contemporary Arts Center, London’s Museum of Natural History and galleries around New Orleans and across the country, Elmore left New Orleans after losing most of her belongings to the flood that followed Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
A couple of weeks prior to the storm, she had moved her negatives to storage elsewhere—a move that ultimately allowed her to publish the books after Artvoices’ Terrence Sanders encouraged her to do so.
“The first intent was to do one book of my street photography from New Orleans. But I went through 12 baker boxes, I had, like, over a million negatives,” she recalled.
“I picked out 8,000 I liked and had them scanned. And then tried to narrow it down to one book.”
She ended up with three.
Of all the images that made it into the books, the photo of Andrews that Elmore keeps in her restaurant remains one of her favorites, in part, she says, because she knew when she shot those photos of Andrews outside her house that night in Treme, they represented some of the best pictures she’d ever taken. Andrews’ grandmother’s reaction to that one image in particular fed her affection for it, too: She said Elmore made Andrews “look like Martin Luther King.”
“Definitely the highest compliment I’ve ever had,” Elmore said. “So I hung it in the restaurant like he’s Martin Luther King.” She and Andrews, who has since performed at The Hummingbird, remain friends.
There are more stories with special significance to Elmore embedded in the books’ photos, too, like the invitation she once got from Rebirth Brass Band trombonist Stafford Agee to photograph his Black Feather Mardi Indian tribe from the beginning until the end of St. Joseph’s Night. Or her impetus for beginning the series on New Orleans grills—when another musician friend told her a New Orleans grill is specifically identifiable because “we actually file our teeth off like they’re solid gold teeth rather than a piece of jewelry that you just put on top.”
Other photos in the set are bittersweet, like the image of late Hot 8 trombonist “Shotgun Joe” Williams, whose 2004 shooting death at the hands of New Orleans police inspired the Stooges’ powerful song, “Why Dey Had to Kill Him?”
Like many of the faces in the pages of the books, Elmore studiously included the people whose presence was essential to the worlds they inhabited at the time, making the set of books as much a historical document as a work of art.
Asked what it feels like to come back to the same streets 20 years later, Elmore cracked a joke about St. Joseph’s Night feeling “like the Oscars” because so many cameras are out there now, adding that she was astounded to see a guy selling beer on the second line with a city-issued permit in his grocery cart. But those are minor details.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “The people I knew are gone.”
In a way, these books bring them back.