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Katrina Exhibit

Restoring Hope

Donn Young has been a photographer for most of his life; never guessing 35 years of his professional work would be lost in a storm. Three years ago, Young’s New Orleans’ studio sat under ten feet of water invited by Hurricane Katrina.

Young returned to his studio four weeks after the storm, the room scattered with original photos, prints, negatives, and awards all under a dark film of dirt and mold. His collection of more than one million photographs—ranging from Daniel Farrow to Ronald Reagan—gone.

As the official photographer for the Port of New Orleans, Young’s work has appeared in several publications including Newsweek, Time, and The New York Times. He was named Photographer of the Year from the New England Press Association, the Louisiana Press Association, and the Press Club of New Orleans. Because of his dedication to New Orleans and his portfolio of awards The Archive, Records, Managers and Administrators Association and LSU Hill Memorial Library Special Collections deemed Young’s work “historically significant.”

After receiving grants, graduate students from the University and archivists from Hill Memorial Library assessed the remains of Young’s studio. Once the photos were sorted, the salvageable images were packed and brought to the basement of Hill Memorial. Members of the LSU Libraries Special Collections staff cleaned the surviving photographs, negatives, and CDs.

“LSU has been in the forefront of this process,” Young said. “LSU is part of writing the book on restoration.”

During the immediate aftermath of Katrina, LSU opened its doors to thousands of victims. The University assisted others in the ways of medical help, housing, student enrollment, and animal care. The collaborative efforts of Young and the University are multilayered—artists helping artists to rebuild one of the most creative communities in the nation. Young has turned the worst natural disaster in history into an inspiration; a sunrise over the 9th ward.

What came of the salvaging project is now on display in Hill Memorial. The exhibit, “After Katrina,” begins as a series of photographs featuring the devastation and rebirth of the Crescent City. The photos lead to images of Young’s studio paired with cases of his waterlogged cameras. The finale features the saved images—a collection of pictures from Mardi Gras, restaurants, weddings, speeches, and elections.

For Young, looking at the exhibit is like looking at the photos for the first time, literally, in years. What started as 110 cubic feet of material was drained down to 34 cubic feet.

“You can be sad, but put it in perspective as for people’s lives,” Young said. “I have relatives who have tattoos from concentration camps on their arms. I would give up my slides for a family dealing with health issues. You have to look at what’s really important.”

Immediately after the storm, Young started tracking Katrina as a photo essayist. He was on a mission to discover how the hurricane affected all parts of life and ways the city would rebuild itself.

One pair of photos features Dr. Michael White, a New Orleans musician, returning to his fallen home to find his 100-year-old antique musical instrument ruined. In his hands, he clutches a tarnished clarinet. White’s hand-written compositions were also lost among Katrina’s waves.

“Why do all of these people return to nothing?” Young said. “It’s the same four letter word heard from uptown to the 9th ward: home.”

Young divided his subjects into categories: neighborhoods, religion, criminal justice, the healthcare system, returning citizens, and the arts.

“How do you go out and tell the largest news story you will ever tell?” Young said. “This story was so large, I couldn’t tell it alone.”

Thus the birth of “40 Days and 40 Nights: The Artistic Resiliency of Louisiana.” As the director of the exhibit, Young gathered 100 Louisiana artists to collaborate on a piece of history, which is now on display through September at the State Archives.

“I realized the story of Katrina was being told by people outside of Louisiana,” Young said. Determined to bring the story to its homeland, Young created three mandates for the exhibit. “I was going to support Louisiana artists, bring displaced artists back to the city, and associate archiving into the project.”

To understand how the exhibit works, Young refers to art from previous generations.

“If we look at the history of art, from cave dwellings to the depression, artists have always been in the forefront of storytelling,” Young said. “Future generations can learn through art.”

Young donated everything that was salvaged from his studio to Hill Memorial Library. The library is keeping the mementos as the Donn Young Studio Collection. His work from “40 Days and 40 Nights” will be kept as a reference library at the State Archives.

“I certainly wish this didn’t happen. That would’ve been nice,” Young said. “You can’t get more depressed, but you can move forward.”

“After Katrina” remains on display in Hill Memorial Library through November 8, 2008.

Holly A. Phillips | Editor
LSU Office of Public Affairs | Fall 2008

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