“New Orleans runs at a different pace to the rest of the world” — Tom Martin
BY Daniel Chapman
In September Leeds-based photographer Tom Martin took a last minute trip to New Orleans with no particular aim – other than filling his mind with everything he could see and capturing as much of it as possible with his camera. Starting on November 20th, the photos he took will be on display in Sela Bar, owned by Mark Young, which has been a soulful hideout below New Briggate since 2004.
Mark: When I’ve been to New Orleans it’s been during Jazz Fest, when there are so many different people from different parts of America and different parts of the world. You can bump into somebody and the next thing you know you’re on someone’s driveway, and they’ve got a massive cauldron of boiling water and trestle tables full of crawfish and sausage and sweetcorn; then you can walk somewhere else and a fifteen piece brass band will rock up.
One night I was walking past lots of house parties, then on this intersection we could hear something in the distance – when we arrived outside the house it was the Rebirth Brass Band in collaboration with a band called Bonearama – bass, drums, guitar and about six trombones. It was perfect, all coming together at the perfect time.
Tom: There was no planning to my trip at all, as stupid as it sounds. I got married this summer so I was busy with that, and my wife’s a teacher so she went back to school in September, and when we came back from the honeymoon I had a month with no work booked in.
Somebody posted a Vice documentary online called NOLA about Southern metal bands, and I watched the trailer for it and thought it looked amazing, and it would be great to go there and take some pictures. That was Friday afternoon. I just thought, you know what, screw it. I flew from Heathrow on Sunday, spent all the money that I saved from working at summer festivals, and I was there on Monday morning. Just like, yeah, now I’m in New Orleans with my camera.
Mark: You get that special welcome at the airport – Louis Armstrong International Airport. Where you collect your luggage they have a six piece brass band. There’s that collective sense of the importance of the musical heritage of the city, and its place within the world.
Tom: I do music photography for a living, and have been doing fashion photography, but although I wanted to shoot some photos outside of that this wasn’t me thinking, right, I’ll do travel photography now. I just wanted to go and shoot everything.
New Orleans is a bizarre place. It runs at a different pace to the rest of the world – the heat is unbelievably oppressive so everyone walks around really slowly, people just drift around. And I’ve never seen rain like it. I grew up in Halifax, and then there’s Manchester, but that’s nothing like the rain in New Orleans. It can be six inches deep, then because of the humidity half an hour later it’s gone.
Some of the pictures in the rain are my favourites. I spent a lot of the journey running around with my camera under my t-shirt, trying to hide it from the rain, and then the lens would steam up every time it stopped. It wasn’t the easiest place to take pictures.
Mark: It’s odd when you talk to people who have been to New Orleans for their different reasons, because the only people I’ve known who have travelled there have been creative and artistic people, so they have very similar shared experiences. So you can ask, was this person still doing busking on this particular road? – and without a doubt they’re there all the time. Although it’s part of America the place has had such a screwing over the years, and that all seems to come back out through its music and creativity.
I went about eighteen months after Hurricane Katrina and was hanging out with some people, one of whom had a grandmother who lived in the ninth ward – the area that was completely underwater. As we drove around you could see the crosses on the doors of the houses that showed the house had been searched, with numbers that showed how many people had been in that house. The number you were looking for was at the bottom that showed how many bodies had been found there.
The part that gets me is the flyover that runs directly through the city centre, and underneath it a tent town had been set up. When I went back the following year, I was expecting that all those people would have been rehoused but it was still there; five years on it’s still there.
Tom: I think you get that feeling through something in the music. It was quite an oppressive place. I had no prior knowledge of the city so I had to feel out where it was safe to go with the camera. Because I wanted to shoot everything with no real plan I was just wandering around on my own, feeling which way to go. There are such contrasts – there’s Bourbon Street with all these drunk frat boys, then two minutes down the road the poverty is unbelievable.
Mark: One thing that really surprised me is the number of multinationals that aren’t there. I only saw one McDonald’s, and there are four in Leeds city centre, so they’re clearly saying there’s no money there, so there’s no point. There’s no Apple store – all the major high street brands that you would expect to be in every major American city, there’s none of it.
But in a way that helps to keep the independent nature of the city. There is definitely that attitude that if they don’t want to be here, then f–k ‘em, and it’s in the music that the people seek solace.
Tom: Although I’ve never done anything so off the cuff before as just packing a bag and going off, it’s probably not a coincidence that I ended up in New Orleans. My dad is a jazz trumpet player and has written books about jazz, so that has been around me since before any of my photography stuff. When I was four years old he’d play Wynton Marsalis tapes and drive us around.
It was really nice then to move to Leeds and find somewhere like Sela Bar. Even though I can’t play an instrument here because I’ve never learned to be that good, I can have my pictures of New Orleans on the wall and it just feels like a perfect fit. You could just pick Sela up and place it on Frenchman Street in New Orleans and it wouldn’t be out of place in any way.
Mark: I was in Singapore earlier this year and they have consultants there now that set up bars from Twitter and Instagram. They sit in an office and look at all the new places in New York and within a couple of days they’re writing out briefs for getting money to open a bar in the latest style. There’s no passion in it.
When we opened Sela it was something I always wanted to do. I always loved jazz, funk, soul music and over the last eleven years at Sela I think all the roads have led back to New Orleans.
I’ve got a buzzard’s foot behind the bar. It was a gift from a doorman at the Blue Nile and I’ve never had the courage to chuck it. It’s supposed to ward badness from your door, and we don’t really get much trouble down here, so perhaps it’s the buzzard who is overseeing it – if you believe in it. I wouldn’t say I do, but then, someone does. And that’s some beyond stuff.
Originally published in The City Talking: Leeds, issue 18