The Charm of Crumbling Bricks and Peeling Paint

Photos from New Orleans’ French Quarter capture history, mystique

By Pamela Dillon, Dayton Daily News

Feature Article for Dayton Daily News Arts section, November 14, 2004

The final resting place that has captured his attention holds so much fascination and notoriety that visitors aren’t allowed in after 3 p.m.
But that’s OK with fine art photographer Robert Miller because the light wouldn’t be good after dusk anyway.

Miller traveled to the French Quarter of New Orleans to capture the history and character of tomb-sites inside St. Louis Cemetery No.1,
as well as the elaborate courtyard doors and windows of homes in the area.
“Patina & Obituaries of the Vieux Carre” includes 26 images on display at the Carriage Hill MetroPark Gallery.

“The whole French Quarter has a certain look and feel to it, and everything is different.
Every door, every window, every doorknob has its own character,” Miller said.
“They’re really proud of that aged look and unique patina.”

Crumbling bricks, peeling paint and rotting wood would send most people around here to Lowe’s for new parts and materials.
But in the Vieux Carre, it’s all part of the history and mystique.

Miller took mostly large format images with a Shen Hao HZX-45A, a 4x5 Chinese camera encased in wood with an accordion bellows.
He uses a slow, traditional process to set up and capture the shot.
When he returns to the darkroom, he spends an entire day developing two negatives at a time in a rare process called unsharp masking.
He creates a positive image of the original negative on another piece of film, then places both together in an enlarger.

“You get a much sharper image because the negatives don’t have to be enlarged that much.
You gain tonality and greater shadow detail,” said Miller.

That sharpness comes through in Maison du Lenny Kravitz, an image of the musician’s courtyard door.
The distress patches from the cracked, peeling paint are so numerous, the resulting dark and light contrasts resemble an abstract painting.
“What you don’t see are all the pale, pastel colors.  When I was there, a local resident came by and asked if I knew whose door I was photographing,” said Miller.
“He told me it belonged to Lenny Kravitz and that he spent thousands of dollars to get his door to look like that.”

Doors from other not-so-famous people include Oak Design on Courtyard Door, a close-up of an intricate metal oak branch design inside a small portal;
and White Porcelain Doorknob, a stark contrast of white against the darkly painted wooden door, that is again contrasted within a lighter concrete framework.

When he visited St. Louis Cemetery #1, he captured the disintegration of ancient tombs with their crumbling bricks, chipped marble ledges and leaning iron posts.

Simple Gifts is particularly poignant, with a small stuffed elephant toy and beads decorating the side ledge of a tomb that has rotted away in the corner.

Bird Bones captures an untidy mess of small bones and feathers on the concrete beside a grave.
The remainder of a predator’s meal, a dark gift or perhaps voodoo,
it is a stark reminder of the reality of death for all humans and animals.

“I love the way the texture appears with everything falling apart.
Old things have a strength and character that modern materials just don’t posses,” said Miller.

He started taking photographs as a child, and when his parents bought him a 35mm camera after high school graduation,
then learned by “making every mistake in the book” until he developed his own style.
His photographs evoke strong feelings and he is known for capturing Appalachian culture.

The Carriage Hill Gallery opened last June, when Miller exhibited his Heartwood series from Appalachia.
This exhibition runs through December 31, 2004 and is open Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and weekends 1 to 5 p.m.

“A woman came through today to see the exhibition, and she was just thrilled,“ said Carriage Hill receptionist Ann Sykora.
“She had visited New Orleans and seen some of these places in person.  She said the exhibition stirred intense feelings and memories."

Contact DDN arts writer Pamela Dillon at  (replace “AT” with “@”)