There is a story in New Orleans largely ignored by media reports and photographs, a story separate from the recounting of Hurricane Katrina's devastation.

The storm that pummeled the Gulf Coast of Louisiana and Mississippi on Aug. 29, 2005, caused death and destruction in untold proportions. More than 1,800 people fell victim to the catastrophe; several hundred people remain missing today. The total damage to the region is still difficult to gauge, but many estimates top $100 billion.

For hundreds of miles along the coast, homes were flooded and blown into unrecognizable piles of rubble. Entire towns, such as Waveland, Miss., were swept off the map. And the images of New Orleans, especially of the Ninth Ward, which was turned into a floating graveyard, are indelible.

But there is a tale that lies under the surface, still being told by the city and its residents. One of the authors of that story is photographer Frank Relle.

In the Still of the Night

Relle, 30, was born and raised in New Orleans. He honed his craft not in art school, but as a photographer's assistant, a job he took when he moved to New York City in 2002.

After a few years, however, Relle became increasingly disenchanted with the surface-dominated subjects he was shooting, mainly commercials and celebrities, and decided to return to his home.

Within a few months of moving back to New Orleans, however, Relle recalls still feeling unsatisfied and unsure of his creative direction. But a casual conversation at a party, one night in 2004, opened up a unexpected path.

"A friend who worked in construction wanted to know how to take a picture of a house interior, which he said was too dark inside," Relle explains. "So I found a similar dark setting -- a nearby house -- to use as an example." Relle took his friend outside and demonstrated how to set up a shot -- his camera steadied by a tripod and set at a very long exposure -- and then took a picture.

What began as a simple tutorial turned into something much more significant when Relle developed the photo. He was surprisingly pleased with the outcome, and realized that he had finally found his subject -- the houses of New Orleans.

Relle then began to troll the city at night, walking or slowly driving, on the search for houses that captured the essence of the city's residents. As he explains, he didn't pick the houses so much as they picked him.

The structures are captured in the depths of night, shrouded in otherworldly colors -- the result of the lights Relle uses -- and even though the occupants are silently hidden inside, their presence is still strongly felt.

The inhabitants are never shown directly, as Relle wants his photos "to invite people in, to let the viewer imagine who lives within the house, and what their story is." By using their homes as a reflection of their lives, Relle overcomes the often overly harsh and blunt nature of documentary photography.


The eerie quality of his lighting and the careful composition reinforce this; each photo has a mysterious pull on the viewer, spurring lengthy and quiet contemplation.

The scene in "Saratoga," for instance, was spotted by Relle on his way home from a night of shooting. The lines of the roof and power cables above, anchored by the vertical columns on the porch, exert a subtle but powerful pull on the eye.

When Relle submitted some of his initial photos in the series to a national contest several months later -- and won -- he was further encouraged. He felt, overwhelmingly, as though his creative path was making itself clear.

The Storm Looms

About a year later, a few days before Katrina, Relle decided to heed the evacuation warnings, but more on a whim. Like many city residents, he says he did not usually leave for hurricanes.

And so Saturday evening, two days before Katrina made landfall in Louisiana, he and a friend drove to Austin, Texas. Relle says he left hundreds of his negatives in New Orleans, assuming he would be returning in a matter of days.

But as the hurricane quickly made apparent, his trip was to be extended indefinitely. After several days in Austin, he went back to New York City to stay with some friends he still had in the area, and ended up remaining there for four weeks.

Initially, Relle was not permitted to re-enter his New Orleans neighborhood, which was why he stayed in New York City. After some time, however, he felt that he simply couldn't bring himself to return to his city. "I thought it was just going to be all gone," he says.

But speaking with his friend Chris Callis, a professional photographer, and Charles Traub, director of the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan, helped Relle come to a realization: He didn't have to feel compelled to take "before and after" shots of the New Orleans homes he had depicted. He could return to his city, and simply continue his mission -- telling the story of the people of New Orleans through their homes.

Flooded, With Light

Relle admits he felt he had to tread lightly when he finally got back to New Orleans, one month after Katrina. "I didn't want to capitalize on someone else's destruction," he explains, "or contribute to the consumers of tragedy." He explains that he tried to keep a respectful distance and resolutely avoided comparison photos of his previous subjects.

Even when photographing in the demolished, eerily quiet and dark depths of the Ninth Ward, he says that he tried to imagine the people who owned each house he shot.


This is apparent in "Clouet," a home he discovered while carefully driving through the still-flooded streets. The neighborhood was without electricity, and with only his car headlights the only source of illumination, he happened to catch a glimpse of the building.

It seemed to be standing defiantly in a sea of debris -- all the shattered houses that the waters from a damaged levee, four blocks away, had scattered around the foundation.

Turning off his lights for a moment to respectfully absorb the scene before taking the shot, Relle realized that the moonlight lit the house perfectly. It was a departure from the way he normally set up his photos, but it turned out to be the right decision.

Even amid such overwhelming destruction, there is a calm beauty to the image: The house and few trees are battered, but standing, with stars faintly peeking out through the night sky.

(And his vision is clearly coming through; a few weeks ago, the Smithsonian Institution requested Relle's entire collection for permanent exhibition.)

Relle continues to photograph the houses of New Orleans, not just the effects of Katrina. The city has been altered, undeniably, but its underlying essence has persevered, and he is still documenting that.

The path of the story may have changed, but Relle's focus remains.

For more information about Relle, click here for his Web site.

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