With a homicide rate nearly eight times the national average, New Orleans stands today, as it did as far back as the 1850s, as the homicide capital of the United States. Today it is the third most deadly city on the globe.
For many years, civil rights attorney Mary Howell promoted the idea of placing a cast iron memorial plaque at the location of each of the city's homicides. She abandoned her idea the day she visualized a New Orleans of the future buried beneath memorial plaques and sinking under the weight of memory.
Tooth for an Eye: A Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish is a project that attempts to take a very close look at something that no longer exists—an invisible population—in the only way in which one can approach such things, obliquely and through reference. The result is a photographic archive documenting contemporary and historical homicide sites in the city of New Orleans and is, as well, an exploration of the empty, dizzying space at the core of violence.
Living in New Orleans, an experience writer Julia Reed has described as "not unlike living in the Old Testament," is in most ways unlike living in any other North American city. The topographical, architectural, material, and cultural phenomenon that is this city is divided into a chaotic collection of districts, wards, neighborhoods, and streets, none of which wholly align with one another. This chaos of physical division is further complicated by the fact that the city, surrounded for miles by lakes, bayous, and marshes, fans out around a kinky bend in the Mississippi River. It is this geographical/political "fan" configuration that accounts for New Orleanians' use of the terms Uptown, Downtown, Lakeside, and Riverside rather than the cardinal directions, which prove hopeless tools when attempting to navigate within the "Crescent City." Fifty-one percent of New Orleans is at or above sea level.
Chorography is a form of geography describing the inherent attributes of a place. These attributes may be physical, sociological, conceptual, metaphysical, or sensory. Tooth for an Eye not only documents sites where violence has occurred, it also finds itself documenting the city's physical loss as her unique material culture crumbles and transforms following generations of political failure. Many buildings that served as backgrounds for violent death have disappeared since they were photographed for this project.
Spontaneous, happenstantial, involuntary, inverted, intuitive, unbidden, subjective, systematic and unsystematic obsessiveness describe the general working style employed for this project. The images that populate the archive were collected with an 8 x 10 Deardorff field camera. The exposures in these photographs are long, and much of the action—mechanical, botanical, and human—is rendered as spectral blur, a physical representation of time like some isotropic fog, depth without definition.
In the atavistic culture of New Orleans, so alive with the historic, symbolic, and sensual, there exists a porousness between the worlds of the living and the dead, where time bends and flows, and neither world lives or dies free of the other's space or influence.
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Luster is best known for the series, One Big Self: Prisoners of Louisiana, which she undertook in 1998 with poet C. D. Wright. This collection of photographic portraits portrays prisoners from three Louisiana prisons including the infamous Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. In her 2003 monograph (One Big Self, Twin Palms Publishing), she writes, "I chose to photograph each person as they presented their very own selves before my camera on the chance that I might be fortunate enough to contact, as poet Jack Gilbert writes 'their hearts in their marvelous cases.'" These portraits’painstakingly printed on 5 x 4 inch sheets of black aluminum’are individualistic, diverse and emotionally compelling.
One Big Self was shown at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art: Jack Shainman Gallery, New York; the Bell Gallery, Brown University, Providence, RI; and Blue Sky Gallery, Portland, OR; among other venues. Luster's awards include the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize for Documentary Photography from the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University (with C.D. Wright), an Anonymous Was a Woman Award, The John Guttman Award, and a Bucksbaum Family Award for American Photography (Friends of Photography, San Francisco).
Her work is included in the permanent collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, and other notable public and private collections.
More recently Luster exhibited her series, Tooth for an Eye: a Chorography of Violence in Orleans Parish, at Prospect. 1 International Biennial in New Orleans (November 2008). Tooth for an Eye was also on view at the Jack Shainman Gallery in New York (January 6-February 5, 2011).
The monograph was released by Twin Palms Publishers, January, 2011.