Richard Sexton’s Creole World

By Taylor Murrow

In Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, photographer Richard Sexton offers a visual essay of his travels in Haiti, Panama, Colombia, Cuba, and New Orleans, while essays penned by scholars Jay D. Edwards and John H. Lawrence offer historical perspectives on the origins of the term “creole” and the ties that bind the word to New Orleans.

Edwards notes how linguistic evolution has taken the word from its origins referring to the locally born children of the French Louisiana colony to a hazy range of proud and negative connotations. Richard Sexton’s definition, for the purposes of this book is, “a hybridized entity connected genetically or culturally to the Old World but created in the New.” His photographic journey began in 1974, when he left on a clichéd adventure for college-aged students: a road trip from his Georgia home throughout Latin America. Along the way, he briefly stopped in New Orleans, where he now has lived for more than twenty years. Today, Sexton is well known for his majestic landscapes and architectural scenes. In Creole World, he continues that tradition with more than two hundred full-color photographs, a selection of which is currently on view at The Historic New Orleans Collection, that capture recurring elements of modern and ancient cultural influences throughout this region.

Bustling street scenes and quiet interiors share an unmistakable vigor and timelessness, sometimes making Bourbon Street feel worldlier than the Garden District. An amalgam of cultures and traditions, New Orleans is different from other cities in the southern United States—this we know—and nearly everything from the breezy attitude of its inhabitants to the structure of homes and neighborhoods bears some European and Caribbean influence. Periods of French and Spanish colonial rule, an influx of nearly 10,000 Haitian refugees at the turn of the nineteenth century, and even a shared subtropical climate all played profound roles in shaping the physicality and social makeup of the city we know today.

Throughout this book, the brightly painted houses, lush and airy courtyards, street vendors on cracked sidewalks, and haunting decayed facades all visually connect New Orleans to the Caribbean and Latin America. The authors acknowledge that Sexton’s intention is not to simply point out commonalities between New Orleans and Latin America, but that is certainly an effect. Ornamented wrought-iron railings that line balconies of Havana look strikingly familiar to anyone who’s strolled through the French Quarter. A dark-skinned Madonna with child painted on the wooden shutters of a Haitian botanical shop mirrors a sculpture on Caffin Avenue in the Lower Ninth Ward. A photograph of raised tombs in a cemetery might be mistaken for St. Louis No. 1, but it is actually in Cartagena, Colombia—an entire chapter titled “The Ritual of Burial” shows that New Orleans’ tombs are not unique, and if anything emphasize the city’s global Catholic ties.

Of course, positioned alongside the striking architectural beauty are examples of poverty and economic struggle that also hit close to home. A chapter devoted to Haiti reveals daily life among structures still damaged from the 2010 earthquake. Chapters “The Predicament of Preservation” and “Frayed Elegance” both highlight how colonial and postcolonial opulence has deteriorated into crumbling edifices with chipped paint. The presence of humans is noticeably peripheral, practically nonexistent in these photographs—if they do appear, it is never in a way that presents them as central to the story. Instead, the images allow the buildings to speak of the past and present lives of these places and of the enduring quality of creolization that pervades them.