New Orleans, via Birmingham, on the Amtrak
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:
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:
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:
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.
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: