Mark Tucker : Journal

New Orleans, via Birmingham, on the Amtrak

Posted in Interesting People, Personal, Photographs by marktucker on April 26, 2009

We just got back from New Orleans. No real agenda — just to slow down, take the train, and see the sights. Normally, I would have chosen to pick up the train in Memphis, (City of New Orleans line), but I wanted to backtrack to an abandoned Drive-in Theatre in Clanton, Alabama, to shoot it. As it turns out, you can hop on the Crescent line, in Birmingham, and take it to New Orleans. So off we go. Below are some random notes about the trip:

1. It started off in grand fashion. After blowing down 65 to Birmingham, we pulled into the Amtrak Station downtown, which honestly, had seen better days, and looked a tad rough. But when we got out, we immediately encountered a Brass Band, standing outside the station. It was like some B/W time travel scene, circa 1965 or something. And then this one particular grand gentleman, the drummer with his kit by his side, standing there, dressed to the nines, even for a train ride. I tried to work in a portrait, but there was no time, before the train left the station. But I at least introduced myself in the lobby, and asked where they were playing. Turns out, it was the Treme Brass Band, based in the Treme neighborhood of New Orleans, just north of the Quarter. If you are heading to the city, they play every Wednesday night at the Candlelight Club, 925 N. Robertson. Check it out; you certainly won’t regret it. Anyway, as the train was headed south, it stopped in Meridian, Mississippi, and I ran back to their car, and got off five frames of Mr. Lionel Ferber, (age 76!). See below:

Mr. Lionel Ferber, at the Merridian, MS amtrak stop.

Mr. Lionel Ferber, at the Meridian, Mississippi Amtrak stop.

2. Taking the Amtrak: There were three types of cars on the Amtrak: Coach, Roomette, and Bedroom. If you can swing the money, splurge and rent the Roomette or ideally, the bedroom. We had the Roomette going down, and it was fine. No idea who designed those rooms, but it reminded me of one of those kids Transformer toys, where you twist it one way, and it’s a Monster, but if you twist it another way, it’s a CuisinArt. The upper bunk let down, if you wanted it to. The sink let down out of the wall. There was even a toilet right beside one seat in the room, which honestly, was pretty weird. (“Hi, don’t mind me, just keep reading — but I’m going to go to the bathroom right here”). Very strange. No divider; no separate room, just raise your armrest, and have at it. On a good day, the air conditioner works; ours did not, and it got pretty warm in there. But the SCENERY outside the window was amazing. Don’t let anyone tell you that Mississippi is a pit, because through an Amtrak picture window, it’s not. It might be a tad bit Grapes Of Wrath, but it’s still a pretty Grapes of Wrath. The trip from Birmingham to New Orleans took about seven hours. I had just come off of Flannery O’Connor “Wise Blood”, so I continued with her Letters, and with some of the Short Stories. Definitely was in “southern mode” on this trip. One other note: They served lunch and dinner, (included in the ticket price), but honestly, it was pretty grim. I’d bring a sandwich next time. They also cram you in like sardines in the Dining Car, which was sort of cute and interesting the first go-round, but after the second meal, got a little old. You share a table with another couple, whether you want to or not. Still, all in all, the Amtrak ROCKS. So much better than grinding your teeth, driving down a boring freeway, looking at Taco Bell franchises. Although, about seven hours a day might be my limit; you start climbing the walls after seven hours. (And a word to the wise: If they are serving beef, don’t order it MediumRare; order it well done).

3. New Orleans notes: We got a great rate at the Monteleon; we were there a few days before JazzFest. Great hotel, right on Royal, in the middle of everything. Best meal of the week: Grilled Oysters at Acme. But go early, around 5pm or so, or else you’ll stand in line outside for a good while. Also caught a great late show at Preservation Hall; don’t miss that.

4. The Ogden Museum of Southern Art: This was a nice museum on Camp Street, near Magazine. An uninspired building, but the art was nice. There was a Christenberry barn there, and a couple of nice prints by Jack Spencer, and an incredible print from Alec Soth, from “Sleeping by the Mississippi”. I had seen the Soth image in my printed book, but the large print on the wall at the Ogden was simply three-dimensional, like you could walk into it, due in part to the optics of the 8×10 camera format, and the way the focus falls off. It was this image, and in the book, it’s nice and all, but the large print is something to behold. The preacher’s face is beyond tack sharp, but the focus falls off right behind him. Gotta love 8×10. I also saw another one of his images at AIPAD last year — the girl in the ice skates, and the print must have been 30×40, and it was STUNNING. I’ve never been a huge fan of his work, but I’m totally on board now. It’s essential to see his original prints, on the wall. The web does NOT do it justice.

5. Katrina effect: We rented a car one day for a few hours, and drove into the Lower Ninth Ward, and into Bernard Parish. After seeing so many images of Katrina, I just could not bear to even think about shooting there. I didn’t even bring the Hasselblad; I just wanted to see it and feel it. I’d seen Polidori’s show at The Met, and that was enough. On television, you have no idea how much area was flooded, but in person, it just went on for MILES and MILES. The telltale sign was the spraypainted ID on the fronts of the homes. Jawdropping how much was flooded. It just makes you wonder who gave the go-ahead to ever build a neighborhood there in the first place, (and why’d they’d ever rebuild in the same troubled spot). You’re driving along, and then you realize that you’re below sea level — essentially underwater — and it’s a little unnerving. I can’t imagine laying down and going to sleep there.

6. The Candlelight Club: So we hopped in a cab on that Wednesday night, to see the Treme Brass Band perform. Got there a tad early, and they were just warming up. Tiny club; low ceilings; great bartender; great feeling; and the walls were covered with these giant printouts of dollar bills. I got off a portrait of Uncle Lionel Ferber before the show; the room was super-dark, and all I had was the H2/P45, so I just set it to ASA 400, brought him over to the only light source in the room — a neon Miller beer sign mounted on the wall — held my breath, and shot a few frames. Here he is below:

Mr. Lionell, on stage, at the Candlelight.

Mr. Lionell, on stage, at the Candlelight.

Here is another wonderful scene — these crazy dollars on the wall, along with the balloons, and a gorgeous older lady, sitting alone in the crowd:

Candlelight Club, New Orleans.

Candlelight Club, New Orleans.

Here is a link to a YouTube video that someone else shot, inside the club. Trust me, when these guys get rocking, and the crowd starts dancing, and the trumbones and trumpets hit full blast, it is a memorable experience.

Here’s also another image of this great young musician that sat in with the band that night, Trombone Shorty, (Troy Andrews). He played trumpet and drums that night, but seemed like he could play most anything. Below.

youngtrumpet2

7. Clanton, Alabama. A few weeks ago, I’d discovered this wonderful abandoned Drive-In in Clanton. At that time, it was covered, and I mean COVERED, in bright purple wisteria, in full bloom. It was like a movie set, art-directed, it was so perfect. So I wanted to go back and photograph it, and did, but the wisteria is gone now. Still, there’s nothing like an abandoned Drive-In, (especially with an ad for mobile homes on the side). On the return trip, after leaving Birmingham, we headed south, in search of this thing, and finally found it:

Clanton Drive-In, (without the purple wysteria).

Clanton Drive-In, (without the purple wisteria).

22 Responses

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  1. rick olivier said, on April 26, 2009 at 10:19 pm

    did you go to jazz fest 1st weekend? If you did and you DIDN’T stop bY my booth in Contemporary Crafts….well, you missed it ;-) I just got back home from 3 days of girl-watching, uh, I mean selling prints, out there and its still the Greatest Show On Earth in many ways. Lovely shot of Uncle Lionel (that’s what everybody calls him “uncle Lionel”) hard to believe a Miller sign can be that nice, maybe you need to add one of those to your mobile kit…

    rick o. in n.o.

  2. Olivier said, on April 27, 2009 at 4:20 am

    Magnifique photos, les portraits sont saisissant

  3. cafe selavy said, on April 27, 2009 at 6:08 am

    Awfully nice post. Creates a desire to go, though I know that it is Tucker’s version and I might have an awfully hard time finding it on my own. That is the trick, of course, as well as the reality. My reaction: “Damn, I should have gone.”

  4. doctorj said, on April 27, 2009 at 7:41 am

    Uncle Lionel! You ran into a New Orleans icon. As to why people would rebuild there, no government (federal, state, city) could ever get a plan together to rebuild in a sensible way. There was no direction to rebuilding. People can only wait so long to get their lives back. And anyway, it is HOME.

  5. Mark said, on April 28, 2009 at 3:55 am

    These posts are the reason why I have your blog bookmarked, I simply love them. Going on adventures like these for the pursuit of photography and story telling is a romantic idea to me, and extremely exciting. Its a given that you will come back with inspiring photos, but your prose makes these pieces much more powerful.

    Thanks for the stories, and of course, the photos.

  6. Mary Crow said, on April 28, 2009 at 11:00 am

    Being a wisteria junkie I think I might have to take a trip to Clanton next year to see the drive in… hope it is still standing! I remember years ago a photo you did of the Clanton water tower (the peach). I love that photo still think about it. A couple of my friends were talking about taking a trip to NO. I like the train idea.

  7. diana barnes said, on April 28, 2009 at 2:37 pm

    I wish all of my trips to New Orleans had been as lovely as the one you just took me on. This might just be your finest work…..

    And your photos were remarkable too.

    x, db

  8. Viewfinder said, on April 28, 2009 at 10:17 pm

    You have such an ability to make everyone look beautiful, put people at ease, and capture their inner spirit. I absolutely love the International Community School series and Sidewalk is not far behind; I’m amazed at how well you captured the kids. Your artistic eye, the classic look and texturing – the highest praise…such an inspiration!

  9. Jeff Magidson said, on April 29, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Mark;
    Having watched your photography over the past few years, I have always been amazed at your ability to quickly connect with people and do wonderful portraits of them on the spot. In this age of skepticism of people with cameras in general and pro photographers in particular, how do you approach strangers and make them feel o.k. with your taking their photograph? Do you tell them that you are a established professional? Offer them a print in return for the privilege? It would make me happy to know how you approach them.

    Thanks!

    Jeff in Boston, MA

  10. marktucker said, on April 29, 2009 at 7:11 pm

    Jeff, I don’t have any secrets; I just try to be myself, and be genuine, and interested. I just introduce myself, and tell them what I’m doing. Most people are just fine with it. On this last trip to New Orleans, I shot a bunch of stuff of the band, (stuff I wouldn’t have shot for myself), and I made 5×7 prints at Costco, and I’m sending them to the guys tomorrow.

    The only time it’s really backfired was once, years ago, doing a job for Esquire, on swingers couples. They met at this one hotel bar in Nashville. I arrived at the bar, hoping to shoot some portaits, but at the first sight of the Hasselblad, people scattered like roaches in Brooklyn. Totally struck out that night.

  11. doctorj said, on April 29, 2009 at 7:53 pm

    I am so glad you are sending copies of the photos to the musicians. They are beautiful! Uncle Lionel has been photographed a million times, but that one on the train is the best I have ever seen of him. I hope he likes it as much as I do. We are losing many of our icons. Just this year we have lost Eddie Bo, Antoinette K-Doe, and others. Stress of Katrina is taking its toll on the elderly. Thank you for saving these images for our city.

  12. gina said, on April 30, 2009 at 1:05 am

    Did you try Felix’s? Its right across the street from Acme on Iberville.
    It is old school…like a diner. Great jambalaya.

    Do you remember this place? We ate there once. Beautiful little diner.
    Spotless with white and green tile on the walls.
    Amost felt like a barber shop.

    http://www.casamentosrestaurant.com/main/main.html

  13. marktucker said, on April 30, 2009 at 7:58 am

    Gina,

    Looks like Casamentos closes for the hot summer months. No, we forgot to go there.

    We did go to Felix’s one day, and it was very weird — not a soul in there, and they asked us if we wanted to stand or sit. If you stand, you can’t order anything from the bartender, you have to order from the shucker. And you stand, right there at the bar, make your own sauce, and eat them standing. If you sit down, you can then talk to the bartender. No rules posted, they were a little put out at us that we did not know the rules in advance. Oysters were huge, almost too big. Acme, by far, is the choice of that street. Not Felix’s.

  14. gina said, on April 30, 2009 at 10:18 pm

    Acme seemed a little too touristy for me.
    We ate at both places. Acme seems like just a notch above South Street here
    in N’ville.
    Felix’s is definitely a local’s place.

  15. Brooks said, on May 1, 2009 at 10:00 am

    Really compelling stuff. You’re work inspires me.

  16. dR said, on May 5, 2009 at 9:13 pm

    Heavenly… this sort of trip.

  17. Jen said, on June 3, 2009 at 2:23 pm

    Loved this post and I’m so sorry about your doggie.

    One history book that is well-written, explains the history of New Orleans, river culture and gives some good reasons why the Lower Ninth Ward was built where it is: Rising Tide by John M. Barry. It’s about the Mississippi River flood of 1927; it covers the Delta region, New Orleans politics, and a whole bunch of interesting side-stories including civil engineering, national politics, racism, and Mardi Gras party dresses. I couldn’t put it down.

    Anyway. Pretty shots.

  18. terrorkitten said, on December 28, 2009 at 6:01 pm

    Mark, I have been following your work for a while now and find it inspirational. Thank you.

  19. Meeting Rooms In Birmingham Airport said, on January 29, 2010 at 5:44 am

    Great photos, great write up…and what looks like a fantastic trip! thanks so much for sharing

  20. Pompo Bresciani said, on February 25, 2010 at 8:33 pm

    Wonderful shot of Uncle Lionel…was is shot by a window?! 1.2 1.4 1.8? He is one of my fav characters in Nola…His last name is Batiste not Ferber BTW

  21. flats to rent in birmingham said, on August 4, 2010 at 7:05 am

    Sounds like it was a great trip.

  22. T. Hopkins said, on January 20, 2013 at 2:04 pm

    Oh, wow…! Mark, I feel with all certainty that you are doing what you were meant to do in life. I really enjoyed reading about this trip–you described it so well visually, too–and the photographs are spectacular. Get ready for a wild ride. I see more, greater things happening for you, and I wish you all the best.


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