In the Still of the NightRelle, 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 Storm LoomsAbout 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 LightRelle 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.
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