The never-changing, ever-changing scene: JACKSON SQUARED by Tom Varisco

Jackson Squared: The Heart of New Orleans
By Tom Varisco
(Chin Music Press)

Reviewed by Cate Czarnecki

The idea of Jackson Square and what it embodies has been fragmented over time in the minds of those whose lives intersect with it. As with any iconic public space, various prisms reflect the different versions of what it can and should represent. The most recognizable image of the square—the Andrew Jackson statue framed by the St. Louis Cathedral—is an intrinsic part of the New Orleans cityscape in the national media, a requisite photo-op for visitors, an iconic portrait that has been reproduced for personal or commercial use by an untold number of artists. For those whose lives must interact with the Square on a daily, more practical basis—say, getting down Decatur to get to work on time—ruminations on the park may have a bit of a darker color.  For some, mule carriages (and the accompanying excrement), creepy living statues, panhandlers, mobs of tourists, and second-rate artists capitalizing on nostalgic portraits of deceased celebrities are what come to mind.

In his previous works Spoiled and Signs of New Orleans, Tom Varisco sought to capture New Orleans through the less obvious vessels of post-Katrina refrigerator art and the culture of the city’s street signs. In his new book, Jackson Squared: The Heart of New Orleans, Varisco frames different impressionistic splinters of the French Quarter’s nucleus through photographs–by himself, Will Crocker, and Jackson Hill–accompanied by short narratives and mini-essays by John Biguenet, John Carr, Nicole Biguenet Pedersen, and Susan Sarver. The book’s words and images succeed in the sense that representations of a beloved landmark generally tend to succeed. At the same time, the book at least attempts to shy away from the stereotypical and convey a more realistic sense of what the square actually means to those who experience it every day.

Photo by Will Crocker

In a brief introduction, Varisco explains his interest in the square as one of the city’s great open-air public venues, “a stage on which locals and visitors ‘perform.’” Many of the images in the book convey this sense of performance, whether capturing actual performers as their subjects or expressing the grander, more existential way in which we are all performing to some degree when we enter the public arena. While some of the excerpts of text do delve a bit into the sentimental—“one does notice the light as it crawls over walls, as the mist mutes it, as shadows overtake it”—the book strives to make a more compelling case for the importance of Jackson Square to the larger New Orleans narrative.

In the forward, John Biguenet reminds us that “New Orleans is always engaged in a conflict whose stakes have to do as much with the past as with the future, and Jackson Square is one of the battlefields upon which the city wages that war … It is a place where one realizes how much profit there must be in boundaries, in separation, in division, in distinctions—because inside the Square, where there’s so little profit to be made, the homeless watch the sun go down on the same iron bench as the wealthy, the lonely rest on the same warm grass as the lovers curled in each other’s arms nearby, the madman mumbles to himself beside the reader lost in a book, and the bride and the widow enter the cathedral through the same door.”

Photo by Will Crocker

Both Biguenet and Varisco are concerned with capturing the democratic nature of the square, whether through images of couples gazing out towards Jax Brewery from park benches, or of young children dancing among the brass bands that populate the corner near Chartres and St. Peter Streets. However, this glorification of dichotomy can be problematic—not just as a framework for interpreting the significance of public space, but for the way it can romanticize social inequity and shift the focus away from the negative by encouraging the viewer to internalize it as simply a part of the much grander whole.

The wider arch of the photographs in the book bends towards capturing the square’s physical characteristics—reflections of the Cabildo on damp cobblestone, the intricate details of the wrought-iron gates. There are truly beautiful photographs here, some assembled so they encapsulate specific moments in time—moments that feel poignant to those of us familiar with the square. Images of park-goers reading the Times-Picayune, in particular, will strike a chord in anyone who has struggled to reconcile the city’s historical traditions with the inevitable drive towards modernization.

“There was something comforting in the predictability of the never-changing, ever-changing scene,” Varisco writes. This may be the most concise expression of what Jackson Squared accomplishes—as a historical record of a revered public place, as well as an expression of the relationship that all of us have with the communal spaces in which we have gathered and performed throughout our lives.

Photo by Jackson Hill