Bottom of 'da Boot

Photographs by Kael Alford
Fall Line Press, 2012

Reviewed by Daniel W Coburn

Issue 43

A thin ribbon of ground rises just feet above sea level, the only buffer preventing the sea from colliding with a vast blue sky. This photograph from Kael Alford's latest monograph, Bottom of da Boot, is a visual metaphor for Louisiana's southern coast, which is eroding into the ocean at the rate of 25-35 square miles per year. But it's not only the islands and shores that are disappearing. It is Alford's family history and lineage. She focuses her project on the disappearing culture and landscape of Pointe-Aux-Chenes and Isle de Jean Charles which are home to two largely Native American villages and the birthplace of her maternal grandmother. These sacred ancestral lands have been ravaged by hurricanes and transformed by gas and oil extraction. Descendents of early French immigrants and native peoples, their culture is formally unrecognized by the federal governments Bureau of Indian Affairs, a status which could have provided a degree of protection.

Alford's images document an environmental catastrophe, but they also function as personal reportage. As a trained photojournalist and war photographer, she experienced this place for the first time while on assignment covering the devastation of hurricane Katrina. She spent the following five years documenting these coastal regions, and describes the project as "an estranged family album." Some of the portraits she makes are of distant relatives. These images are beautifully executed, touching and revealing. She photographs children and young girls and I wonder if they serve as personal stand-ins, allowing Alford to connect to this place as a relative outsider, while imagining how her own life would have been different if this had been her childhood home.

Through her portraits, Alford captures the determination and spirit of a proud, but endangered population. There are photographs of the interior and exteriors of homes, which elaborate on the complex personalities that inhabit the islands. She shows us seemingly abandoned neighborhoods built on flooded and heavily saturated grounds. The pictures show us damaged fishing nets and the remnants of the shrimping industry. She photographs Island Road, at points partially and completely submerged. There is a photograph of the landscape where her great grandfather's hunting camp once stood. Alford portrays these people as spiritual beings by photographing several formal and makeshift altars present in homes and as fixtures of the landscape.

Alford's project was funded in part by one of nine "Picturing the South" commissions awarded by the High Museum of Art. Brett Abbot, curator of photography, wrote the preface for Bottom of da Boot describing how Alford's photographs fit within the broader context of the museum's collection. Alford contributes an in-depth introduction and description of the project as well. William Boling compares Alford to other Southern artists such as Faulkner who could not help but find truth and beauty in people who live, as Kael says, "on a scrappy piece of land."

The book is nicely bound in an embossed gray linen cover, inlaid with one of Alford's flagship images. The interior is well-designed featuring 96 color plates, complimented with informative maps and statistics printed on transparent vellum inserts. I enjoyed this book and believe it will make a nice compliment to your library as well.

Buy the book here

Daniel W. Coburn is a photographer and graduate student at the University of New Mexico.
To view Daniel's photography, please visit his website. Daniel was featured in Fraction Issue 20.
Follow Daniel on Twitter : @danielwcoburn