Seeing the Sweet with the Bitter
Photographer Frank Relle sees beauty as crucial to his craft—and his message
LEH’s 2019 Michael P. Smith Documentary Photography Award has been awarded to Frank Relle, whose evocative images of land- and cityscapes bring a distinct artistic vision to familiar subjects. Relle shares the origin of his vision and what he hopes to imparts to viewers of his work in these images.
My photographic exploration of the Louisiana landscape began at an early age. Staring out the window of my mom’s 1984 Mercury station wagon, my siblings and I used to play “I spy.” I was eight when our family moved from the suburban West Bank of New Orleans to Covington, a rural community north of Lake Pontchartrain. Over the next ten years, we traveled extensively by car throughout the region, the shifting scenes providing my childhood education and entertainment. The distinctive range of natural and manmade views piqued curiosity in my young mind.
Our games of “I spy” quickly turned to games of “But Mom, why?” Crossing the Atchafalaya Basin, I’d ask, “Why do people live in floating houses?” Crossing the Bonnet Carré Spillway: “Why are there fires in the sky coming from the river?” Crossing Lake Pontchartrain: “Why is there fog during winter mornings?” Driving Highway 190 from Mandeville to Covington: “Why are they cutting down all the trees?” Crossing the lake again: “Why don’t we see ducks anymore?”
My photographic work is the continuation of those childhood games. It is imbued with appreciative observation and reflective questions about the built and natural landscape of Louisiana. The car-ride views helped me fall in love with this terrain and architecture. The distinctive beauty of our cypress-lined lakes and flat vistas with towering summer cumulonimbus clouds drove me to explore and understand our geography and history.
In my series Until the Water, I create photographic evidence of the beautiful and sublime to engage the visual appreciation of my viewers. Alongside these images of beauty, I also look to capture the conflicts and questions evident in our fragile coastal community.
Most contemporary documentary photography has turned away from a romantic gaze that includes a love of nature and an appreciation for the fragility of life. If a photograph documents the beautiful, it is considered naive. This school of new topographic photography focuses on the mundane and rampant scars of the humanized landscape, maligning the beautiful as trivial and passé.
In my work, I choose to train my lens on a mix of poetic, beautiful, and challenging subjects in an effort to create a thoughtful attention to the world. People’s concern for the environment is born of a natural love of water, trees, and animals; these are, after all, essential to our survival. We need thoughtful eyes trained on beauty if we are to balance our increasingly technological world with the natural world and create the social and political will to collectively care for our communities and natural resources.
I challenge us to train our lenses to absorb the beautiful and the difficult simultaneously, to celebrate our strengths as well as highlight our weaknesses. I encourage other image-makers and cultural gatekeepers to balance their calls for critical viewpoints with exhortations to celebrate the beautiful.
I hope that the photographs blend with your own passionate, youthful memories and encourage you to appreciate and thoughtfully consider our Louisiana.
Photographer Frank Relle was born and lives in New Orleans. He graduated from Tulane University with degrees in cognitive science and philosophy. His work is included in the public collections of the Smithsonian Museum of American History, New Orleans Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts Houston. His photographs have been featured in National Geographic, Oxford American, the New York Times, The New Yorker, and Southern Review.
Celebrate Frank Relle and all of the 2019 Humanities Award winners on April 4 at the Bright Lights Awards Dinner in Lafayette. For more information and tickets, visit www.leh.org/brightlights.