A little over a month ago, photographer Frank Relle opened his gallery at 910 Royal Street. Since then, foot traffic has moved in and out of the new space with eyes looking from photograph to photograph in stilled silence. After the silence, though, came conversation.
Being able to converse with New Orleanians, tourists, transplants, and wanderers of every kind is a welcomed pleasure for Frank Relle because it often leads to an abstract treasure hunt. As Relle explains, “Everyone who visits here and even people that are from here are always trying to find this thing about New Orleans. This unknown. This special character that they want to hold onto.”
When looking at Relle’s photographs, you believe he’s found that thing. More than that, he’s photographed and immortalized that thing. Humans–being of a logical species–usually want proof, and what better way to prove that Relle has captured a nugget of the unknown than by putting his work in conversation with dead people? Specifically, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Ludwig Wittgenstein.
Let’s start with the eldest in the party, Goethe. He claims that when struggle and suffering are combined in a single moment, beauty is made. Now let’s switch to the youngest (and still living) member of the conversation, Relle. All of the houses in his photographs are trapped in a moment when the onlooker is not sure that they will survive, although you can see in their weathered siding, their nature encrusted rooftops, and their leaning foundations that they have spent immeasurable time trying to remain as they once were. Even the houses that lurk in the darkened light emanate a loneliness that begs for attention.
They are New Orleans. They are the surrounding areas of New Orleans. If there is a place that knows what it is like to struggle and suffer, it is here. And that’s just one of the reasons why New Orleans is in a constant state of beauty for all that truly look at it.
And looking has a lot to do with what Relle does. As he says, “There’s something about what happens when we look at things through glass, whether that be a magnifying glass, which was one of my early soul-opening experiences.” Magnifying glasses, car windows, and his own lens on the world help Relle get “…into a state of mind and a heightened awareness where [he] can feel and read the visual symbols in the landscape and become more in tune with them.” It’s a different kind of language.
And if we’re going to talk about language then we are going to (paranormally speaking) talk with Wittgenstein. As the good old Ludwig explains, “Language is a labyrinth of paths. You approach from one side and know your way about; you approach the same place from another side and no longer know your way about.” The same rings true each time Relle throws his gear into his 12 foot aluminum Alweld flatboat (named Document) and sets out on a photographic endeavor.
“While I’m in that process, my fear and my ego rear their heads and tell me that this is all ridiculous and ask me what I think I’m doing…It doesn’t matter how long I do this, I still have to go through some kind of strange mental anguish,” Relle says.
That anguish produces photographs that have lives all independent from each other. They are all approached from a different angle. Yes, Relle knows how to photograph, that’s obvious, but he also chooses to photograph in a way that moves him, as he explains, “from the known to the unknown” each time. His labyrinth is varied, and it also includes swamps. I’m not sure Wittgenstein would even know what to do if there was a swamp in his mental, let alone physical labyrinth.
And what comes of all of this? A photograph, which is no small thing. As Wittgenstein explains, “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.”
There’s a haunting feeling to Relle’s work, possibly due to the his photographs repeating their story in a way that makes you increasingly eager to hear the tale again. So now that Relle has his gallery and his work opening up conversations, what in the world could be next for him?
A toucan photo. That’s right. When Relle was younger he frequented the Audubon Zoo, and as he says, “The bill of a toucan captured my imagination and stopped me in my four or five-year-old tracks…There’s a feeling I have about them that I want to capture, and I’m actually envious of some painters who can paint the expressiveness of a bird with more nuance and character than a photograph delivers. But one day I’m going to capture this.”
For all of us who want to see Relle’s photographic rendition of a toucan beak, we will have to wait, but as Anne Carson says, “In the interval between reach and grasp, between glance and counterglance, between ‘I love you’ and ‘I love you too,’ the absent presence of desire comes alive.”
So we will wait–our desire sparking into life–and in the meantime we can immerse our imaginations into the flickering and fleeting moments Relle has already captured for us.
Frank Relle’s gallery at 910 Royal Street is open Monday through Sunday from 10:00 AM until 7:00 PM. You can learn more about Relle and his work on his website and also by following him on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.