Bourbon Street is used to being oversimplified. To the cynic, it’s an obnoxious tourist nightmare, to the realist, an engine of the New Orleans’ economy, and to the average visitor, an environment famous for its temptations, the first of which is to merely add to the onlooking crowd.
To Courtney Asztalos, it’s a place to pull apart assumptions into specific stories with photographs.
Courtney Asztalos has spent over a year making trips to Bourbon Street at different hours of the day, waiting for interesting people to photograph. She works both sides of street photography, asking permission from strangers before taking their portrait, but also taking candid shots. She’s both aiding and admiring their mission of seeing and being seen. In many ways she’s just another set of eyes on the street looking for interesting details, but she gathers stories and emotions from her subjects as well. Her interactions on Bourbon last longer than the click of a shutter.
“There are people from all over who are not necessarily coming to participate in a vice but to say that they were there in a place and to be part of the river of it,” she says. Many of her photographs are of people who may be traveling, but aren’t necessarily tourists. The street is famous for being communal in ways that many destinations are not.
The push and pull of the roaming crowd lends everyone a bit of anonymity, but at the same time so many people are dressed to communicate their identities in a split second. It is a marketplace where booze is meticulously measured by the drop, but attention is an unregulated currency.
The tourists leave their own photographic mark online with hashtags and geolocating features, branding—or maybe excusing—whatever content is in the photo with the Bourbon Street banner. “My theory is that the act of photographing ourselves at tourist sites becomes so important because it makes us feel reassured that we are a part of the recognisable world,” street photographer Martin Parr wrote in an essay about tourist photography.
Most newcomers are too caught up in what’s right in front of them to try and parse out the whole of the Bourbon Street experience, as anyone who has tried to walk a straight line at a normal pace down the sidewalk can tell you. The overload itself is an attraction, and the venues blare even when the crowds are thin. While experience has given Asztalos the ability to swim through the stimulus, she is still fascinated by the strobing, fluorescent palette that paints up the populace. She’s been experimenting with making animated GIFs that recreate the bursts of light and strange details like the turtles and lizards living underneath daiquiri bars.
Asztalos also takes advantage of another camera, one that watches the street 24 hours a day: the EarthCam situated above the Cat’s Meow Karaoke Club at the corner of Bourbon and St. Peter Street. The live feed from the Bourbon EarthCam is just one of many in a worldwide network, but it receives top billing alongside New York City’s Times Square. When Asztalos first found out about it, she knew she had to find a way to experiment with it.
“I started thinking about how the whole genre of tourism surveillance is something that nobody has really addressed yet, and this idea that this space is accessible in digital reality at any given time is really interesting to me. I was kind of obsessed with this idea that even when I didn’t feel like going out there, I could sit at home or anywhere I was and still look at the street.”
The site archives a rolling 24 hour period, so Asztalos can grab images from her computer screen after a shooting session. She also takes screenshots from her iPhone. In this way she can capture images of herself capturing her subjects, an extra digital image echo added to the bewildering experience of what’s being seen, remembered, or overlooked. The EarthCam is an older model, not HD, so sometimes it glitches, turning Courtney’s silhouette into a pixelated ghost.
In her physical portfolio, Asztalos has printed out many of the EarthCam shots on semi-transparent vellum paper which she then layers over her own photographs to create a composite. For instance, one of her portraits of a woman (“she just looked worn,” she says) wearing an abstractly patterned rain jacket is paired with EarthCam shots of the cleansing wake of a street wash truck.
The surveillance layer of Asztalos’ work contrasts how we’re used to seeing such images—in reality clip shows, YouTube pratfalls, as a helpless voyeur on fictional cop shows, or “found footage” horror movies—and the pairing of images forces you to reconcile those feelings with the ambivalent frivolity of the street. Someone is always watching.
She says, “There were a lot of times where I would just be on the corner waiting for things to unfold. So the idea where the street is a stage and a space for these interactions to happen because of the camera led me to confront these issues about surveillance that I think a lot of people are just starting to think about.”
Asztalos admits that there is a wide range of emotions she experienced, some of them tied up with being a woman observing others both formally and candidly. “Shooting and not telling people that the [EarthCam] was there while I was photographing them and going back and looking at it kind of led me to test my emotional boundaries. It’s just so strange.”
Even though she photographs people from all backgrounds, Asztalos seems to gravitate toward presenting and talking about women. While sexuality is overtly advertised on the walls outside of clubs and uninhibited flirting between strangers is commonplace, she contrasts the posturing of strippers in doorways with the vulnerability of a young woman lying about her age to some boys trailing her or with the daily routine of female residents including the street on their jogging route.
She points out in one portrait how her subject is wearing all fleur-de-lis accessories, from head toe, for an accumulated effect of self-identifying with New Orleans. There’s also the roving bands of bridesmaids clutched together in a many-limbed selfie, a flash embrace. Attitudes and postures of consumption are everywhere, and Asztalos doesn’t judge any of them too harshly.
“To see those people really happy and free and dancing and doing their thing makes me happy. It’s the whole wide range of emotions that I go on while I’m on that street!”
I told Asztalos about the mixed feelings I encountered whenever I visit Bourbon Street, usually just walking a block or two whenever I pass through the Quarter. She said she’s more comfortable dealing with so many types of people in the real world instead of the digital one.
“I feel really crowded in digital space, just being accessible on my cell phone to anybody at any time. I got off of Facebook recently. When you go to Bourbon Street, you come in contact with thousands of buzzing energies, and I think a lot of people in New Orleans don’t want to deal with that because it takes a lot out of you.”
Asztalos’ collection of images continues to grow, and she’s putting them together in different formats. She’s working on a limited edition art book, each copy of which will have a different artifact from the street: laminated logos from plastic go-cups, drawings made by strippers, chipped wood fallen from elderly doors and shutters.
She continues to add images and GIFs to her tumblr, and in September she will exhibit the project at the Crisp-Ellert Art Museum in St. Augustine, Florida. She hopes to project the EarthCam on the wall of the gallery and have friends of hers interact with it during the show. On September 5th, she will be there for an artist and curator talk.
What’s interesting is that Asztalos believes that Bourbon Street as an entertainment district has been distilled down to its essence—”drink, pizza, hot dogs, souvenirs”—but that there are an exciting number of ways to document, express, and describe it. The constant flow of newcomers makes it impossible to ultimately define.
I asked Asztalos to speculate on whether Bourbon Street has reached the end of its evolution or as those in the anti-Bourbon camp might say, its shamefulness. “I’m really interested in it being a cultural carving that has been shaped over time,” she replied. “I don’t know the answer, but I think the reflection will be on America as a whole, because America comes to it and drives it. It’s going to continue to be a reflection of the unconscious collective mass.”
Ryan Sparks is the editor of Southern Glossary. Follow him on twitter.