New Orleans photographer Jennifer Shaw's work is based on a world observed and a world constructed, and is typically recorded through the laughably imperfect optics of toy cameras.
Jennifer Shaw’s photography is based on both a world observed and a world constructed, and is typically recorded through the laughably imperfect optics of toy cameras. Shaw was born in Lafayette, Indiana, but spent her childhood in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts degree in photography from the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence in 1994, Shaw moved to New Orleans later that year “in pursuit of the artist’s life.” As one of a generation of photographers who experienced Hurricane Katrina, she has used this epic event to both shape her work and to become an advocate for the effectiveness of the medium as an instrument of transformation and change in her adopted city. Though photography today is largely a digital realm, Shaw has remained dedicated to imagery captured on film, and still teaches darkroom photography at the Louise McGehee School in New Orleans.
In a posted statement, Shaw writes, “Photography is always an act of discovery for me. It’s about the joy of seeing and the mysterious convergence of light, texture and form as translated onto film. A sense of wonder and a reverence for beauty are motivating factors that lead me to document and interpret the world through the camera’s lens. I attempt to create images that transcend literal description, reaching beyond the physical surface of the subject to resonate with viewers on an emotional level.”
Like many photographers who come from an academically rigorous program in the fine arts, Shaw approaches her photographs as series or projects. These can consist of works in black and white or color. Shaw prints the black-and-white photographs in her darkroom, using the post-development technique of toning, to add both a slight color cast to the prints and to enhance their permanence as objects. The particular chemistry she uses produces a type of toning — split toning — where the various densities of silver in the print react disproportionately to the toner. The process is not exactly controllable and results in prints that though from the same negative, have a unique appearance. Shaw accepts the accidents of the process as a gift. Her color photographs are made on film, which are then scanned and printed digitally, a more controllable technique.
Shaw’s series include Relics (2001-2005), made in her Uptown New Orleans neighborhood, which she characterizes as both “formal and documentary”; Aftermath (2006) made in New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward in the months following Hurricane Katrina; Nature/Nurture, which are close-up images of plants (begun 2004); and Hurricane Story (2005-06), a project that tells the story of her family’s exodus from New Orleans during Katrina, the birth of her first child during that time, and the cross-country wanderings that occurred before her return home. This last series became a book, and the photographs were based on Shaw’s experiences, but reconstructed with toys and other small objects. The resulting pictures are both symbolic and poignant.
In the months following Katrina, photographers in New Orleans banded together to form the New Orleans Photo Alliance (NOPA). NOPA provided a regular forum for meetings, exchanges of ideas, collaborations, and a mechanism to rebuild social structures disrupted by the storm. Shaw was a founding member of the organization, and since 2006 has been responsible for spearheading NOPA’s annual December citywide event, PhotoNOLA.
Exhibitions of Shaw’s work have been shown in Louisiana and elsewhere in the United States. Her work was also exhibited in Paris, France, in 2007 as part of the Régards sur la Nouvelle-Orléans exhibition mounted by the French Ministry of Culture and Communications. Between 2007 and 2011, Hurricane Story was displayed in Louisiana, Georgia, and Texas. Her pictures have been part of exhibitions of works done with toy cameras in Washington, Kentucky, California, and Louisiana. Another group exhibition exploring the notion of transformation of personal vision brought on by Hurricane Katrina, Before (During) After (2010), included her photographs. The photographs were shown in the Texas, Louisiana, and the Netherlands.
Shaw received a grant from the Louisiana Division of the Arts in 2003, and an Idea Village/ArtDocs grant in 2007. The following year she was awarded a Louisiana Cultural Economy Foundation Grant. Her work won best in show at the International Juried Plastic Camera Exhibition in 2009.