New Orleans lost a special person on Monday. George Dureau, a superb visual artist and even more accomplished photographer, died at the age of 83. He was a friend for more than 30 years.
George was a part of the very fabric of this city; it was as though he grew out of the ground along with the palmetto plants, the banana fronds, the sweet olive trees. Except for his time as a student at LSU and a short period when he served time in the U.S Army, he really didn’t leave. It was as though the very oxygen his body needed to exist could be found only in this place.
George always referred to himself in the third person. George said this; George went there. I never really knew why. Over the years, I would stop in and visit him in the various somewhat ramshackle abodes he called home. Always on a table were dozens and dozens of photo album-sized black and white prints, scattered about artfully; always a basket with clean, but un-ironed, linen napkins; always a container with a motley collection of vintage silver forks and knives.
There are others who can comment on George’s artistic skills, others who will talk about his much-discussed relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, another photographer of international and at one point controversial fame. For me, I can only comment on his incredible capacity for empathy. It was this ability that allowed the subjects of each of his portraits to project an extraordinary sense of dignity — poses that elevated images of the maimed, the dwarfs, the ordinary neighborhood African American males who agreed to pose, often nude, into the most riveting form of photographic art.
The indelible memory I will always have of my friend is of this wiry guy with the plaited beard and long pony tail, usually dressed all in black, weaving his way through his beloved French Quarter on his bicycle. On the occasions of more formal events, he’d dress up in his smart black suit and shined-up shoes to revel in the role of Southern gentleman artist.
George never had much money. What he had somehow seemed to disappear. But he was always, bless him, the perfect host. Gracious and generous to a fault. If he knew you were coming over, there would be, as he would say, a little pot of beans on the stove or a sweet little salad from the farmers’ market; a glass of wine somehow just seemed to appear.
He was a reflection of a bygone and very different New Orleans. I don’t think they make them like that any more. I will miss him.