This book review is a revised and expanded version of a review I originally wrote and posted in August 2009 at my blog Dunne by the Book. I was inspired to revisit the book, and the review, when we began planning our trip to New Orleans for the 2012 Jazz Fest.
The Majesty of the French Quarter (Pelican, 2000, 192 pages) is an artfully designed, high-calorie dessert of a book. It carries the reader on a deliciously absorbing journey of French Quarter architecture, interiors and courtyards through the photographs and narrative of Kerri McCaffety. From the opening spread, McCaffety links us to historic New Orleans as though we might be seeing it, hearing it, experiencing it ourselves but with a point of view few of us may be privileged to access.
The author-photographer’s lens observes the rooms, porches, balconies and buildings both in motion and at rest, finding them simultaneously grand and intimate. It is clear that McCaffety is most accomplished at her craft, and the images are well edited to travel along a concise progression through the French Quarter.
The book’s layout is fresh and varied, and the page design is nicely suited to the material. One particularly graceful series of photos appears on page 76, where eight photos, representing all of two subjects, glide across and along the page. While the caption calls attention to “166 years of weather and ruin,” I come back to the images again and again and see not destruction but motion and vibrancy.
The occasional photo may trip you up as seeming overly staged. One that snags my attention is that of a nearly empty studio, shown on page 73. A white vase with muted flowers sits on the undressed wood floor next to a faded yet fabulous rouge-upholstered high-back bench. The lone piece of furniture fronts an ages-old fireplace, against which an empty picture frame rests. Stagey, yes. But the more often I visit the page, the more I am drawn into the set.
And strangely, what might seem at first blush to be contrived settings are soon recognized to be likely photographed as is, a come-as-you-are beckoning to experience living on a world stage. Chief among these scenes is that shown on pages 74-75, in which the piano is the least of the props indicating life’s performance.
Often, the images discover slight imperfections in detail, such as on page 77, where the side table’s carefree, branch-like legs poke against the fabric of a chair skirt. I love the idea that this artistic hiccup may or may not be intentional.
Initially I had glossed over the photographs of shuttered windows and doorways. I’d seen these fixtures on plenty of occasions in real time. But as I considered them again in the overarching context of the book, I came to understand their dual function as absolutely necessary and at home in this collection and as a template for the contrast between what is observed from the street and what is lived by the buildings’ inhabitants, or was lived by the historical figures who once occupied them.
Similarly, the balconies. Those photographs that merge shadow with light are particularly affecting. The bottom-left photo on page 67 almost makes you shield your eyes as you move from the dim balcony doorway out to a bright shining day to face a red brick building whose tiers of wrought iron practically smile back at you.
While many of the scenes evoke a lived-in grandeur and often feature draped and overlapping, sometimes overwhelming, color (witness the irrepressible spread on pages 78-79), a few photos take the breath away for their stark recall_the shadow of a lamppost against a scarred terra-cotta wall (p. 44) or the corner shot of a typical French Quarter structure nearly subsumed in dusk behind an eerily empty street (p. 103).
These are the types of photos I’ve always wished I knew how to take. They nudge themselves off the page and into the consciousness with precise angles and clean, exacting color and light. (McCaffety’s profile and accomplishments can be viewed at her website, http://kerrimccaffety.com/.)
The narrative, also by McCaffety, is ideal in its utility. The commentary accompanying the images is engaging and artful, yet appropriately terse, complementing the photos rather than elbowing them out for our attention.
Perhaps my favorite photograph in this collection is one of the few taken on a rainy day. The photo on page 12 looks out through a heavy, darkwood French door_the door frame crowned with a large fan window_to the rain-drenched, greenery-lined, paved courtyard of the Williams residence. The reflection of a table lamp stains a pane of glass in the door, serving as a hopeful guard warding off the damp.
The character that infuses these spaces and places is unique to New Orleans and is as varied as the city’s history would suggest. It carries from the metal dogs playfully squaring off in the bright, airy sunroom on page 183 to the juxtaposition of trophy deer heads hanging on the same wall as a family portrait of ancestral females on page 70.
Through McCaffety’s lens we find a French Quarter that is at once quiet and jangling, elegant and stark, straightforward and embellished. The majesty of the French Quarter is as much in the author’s sensibility as in her subjects. I recommend this book to anyone who is familiar with the city and would like a more intimate look into the French Quarter’s history by way of its architecture and interiors, and to all who have yet to experience this distinctive environment.