Friday, September 4, 2015

about the archive

PICTURE CATAHOULA is an on-line archive of photographs taken in Catahoula during its golden age — 1928-1978. Thirty-six Catahoula families have contributed to the archive so far, and as of September 2015 I’ve scanned almost 4000 photographs.
     Where did I find all these old photographs? Basically, I started by going through my own family’s photograph collection, then I asked my aunts and uncles and close family friends if they had any old photographs of Catahoula they’d be willing to let me scan, and it spread by word of mouth from there. I brought my scanner and my laptop from house to house, going through boxes with people and scanning, scanning, scanning. In exchange for allowing me to post their photographs on my Facebook and Flickr pages, they received high-quality digital scans of their photograph collections. It was a win-win situation. Contributors to the growing archive got their precious family photographs preserved, and people around the world began to learn about Catahoula.
     Catahoula is so small and so young, I eventually came to realize, that it would be entirely possible for me to track down every film photograph taken there during that fifty year period of time. Only so many exist, it dawned on me, and they’re out there somewhere. It was just a matter of finding them and digging them up. So the project became a kind of quest for me, especially when I considered that without my efforts in bringing these old photographs to the surface, the treasures might remain buried forever.
     Most of the photographs were still in Catahoula when I started looking for them in 2013, but many had been moved in the years since they were taken to Breaux Bridge or Houston or New Orleans. I tracked them down wherever they were, dug them up and scanned them. Once the word was out, the photographs even started coming to me. I remember it was the day it snowed last year. The doorbell rang. It was Tammy with the Catahoula Elementary Scrapbook from out of nowhere. The archive became a kind of treasure chest, and I filled it with the treasures I found, and the treasures that found me. 

ONE PHOTOGRAPH is one perspective, but a thousand photographs is a thousand perspectives. What has been especially interesting about this project is seeing how the images, collected from scattered suitcases and boot boxes and photo albums, work together to resurrect a time and place we thought had disappeared forever. Polishing and posting jewel after jewel, a picture of old Catahoula began to emerge. Turns out the past is still very much alive, fossilized in those old photographs. They just needed to be brought together for the full picture to come into view.
     Dealing with so many images has been an organizational as well as an artistic challenge. To make sense of the collection of photographs as a whole, and to preserve the images in the most useful way, I decided to tag each photograph, once it had been digitally restored, with at least two pieces of information — the source of the photograph and the content of the photograph. If the photograph was dated, I also included the date. Then I organized the collected photographs into the following categories:

— Babies
— Barefoot
— The Lake
— Hunting
— Mardi Gras
— Easter
— Crawfish
— St.Rita
— Communion
— Home
— Fashion
— Cars & Trucks
— The Bridge
— Birthdays
— The School
— The Park
— Sports
— Weddings
— Halloween
— The Christmas Parade
— Christmas
— Snow

     In addition to the almost four thousand digitized photographs, the Picture Catahoula archive also includes high-resolution scans of historically important documents and other Catahoula-related artifacts:

— a 1924 map of the new subdivision on the lake’s western shore
— a 1928 brochure for the Easter Sunday grand opening of the Catahoula Inn
— an article on Catahoula Lake that appeared in The Weekly Messenger in 1933
— a 1935 handwritten letter from a young student to her teacher
— a 1937 newspaper article reporting on the filming of the Cecil B. DeMille movie The Buccaneer in the area
— a 1948 receipt for the sale of sugarcane
— a 1955 flyer announcing movie times for the Lake Theatre
— preliminary blueprints for the Atchafalaya Wilderness Center, a cross between a theme park and a wetland preserve proposed for construction in 1976 in Catahoula
— the 1977 St. Rita church directory, with high-resolution scans of each family included in the directory
— a Catahoula Elementary report card from 1963
— the complete contents of the Catahoula Elementary scrapbook
— old maps of the Atchafalaya Basin, some printed from microfilm
— a 1973 Mardi Gras Carnival program
— a 1986 report of an archaeological investigation at The Theriot Site, Catahoula’s only known archaeological site

     My goal is to maintain a permanent on-line presence for these historical images of Catahoula, accessible to the public at large. I also have plans to expand the archive with digitized 8mm movie footage and contemporary audio recordings.