If Jeff Whetstone’s recent photographs of the American South call to mind other kinds of light writing, it may be because the region’s literature, like Whetstone, reveals light to be history’s medium. William Faulkner observed that Mississippi rays seem to arrive “not from just today but from back in the old classic times.” Even California native Joan Didion mused that the air of New Orleans “never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence.” Whetstone’s pictures channel the anomalousness of time and radiance in the South, how the land remains at a threshold between past and future yet eludes a certain nowness. There exist few better metaphors for this slippery quality than the New Orleans batture, a colloquialism for the band of flood-prone earth between the Mississippi River and the levees that remains exempt from the property laws of the mainland. The artist has turned viewers’ attention toward the textures and ecosystem of a particular place in “Batture Ritual,” a compact exhibition of works at Julie Saul Gallery, commissioned by and first shown at Prospect.4 in New Orleans last May. 

The show’s eponymous centerpiece was a nearly half-hour video made in 2017 for which Whetstone affixed a camera to the branch of a willow by the shore and recorded more than two years of activities from this vantage point. There, Vietnamese émigrés trawl for snakes and shrimp, tossing their unwanted hooked, writhing catches back into the water as barges and cruise ships glide along the river. Crows scrounge for their leftovers. A woman casts a line—for leisure or sustenance? A man drags a catfish into the frame and leaves it in the dirt; we watch it twitch. 

The inhabitants of the batture have always been as marginalized as the territory. The area was first tenanted in the nineteenth century by freed slaves, retired sailors, and the indigent, whose shanties were invariably fated to flood. Rather than dwelling on individual hardships, Whetstone captures moments of survival meant to represent global conflicts of capitalism and climate. The result is transfixing. The thrums of industry and insects provide the video’s score, and the light is often indeterminate, belonging either to daybreak or gloaming. The gallery itself was lit low, as if to mimic a darkroom, and indeed The Batture Ritual could be read as a kind of twenty-five-minute photograph, a surface gradually developed by headlamps, beacons, ship windows, dock lights, and the painterly shine of wrinkling water. The video is a sort of time lapse but also a lapse in time—a hopscotched meditation on what remains despite the shifting tides of fortune.

Alas, the energy ebbed in Whetstone’s photographs. While savvily composed, they neither sustained the absorptive atmosphere of the video nor developed any meaningful connection with his anonymous subjects. There were a couple of plays on genre, including a vanitas of an eviscerated catfish bejeweled with bottle flies (Still Life with Catfish, 2016), and a profile portrait of a woman sitting on a pier (Livia and Coal Barge, 2017). The title of Ictalurus, 2017, a photograph of a fisherman and his haul, may sound vaguely mythological, but the word simply identifies a genus of catfish. In a staged nighttime image titled Ode to the Algiers Batture, 2017, a white woman, up to her waist in river water and wearing a pale gown, holds onto a brightly illuminated rope tied to a tree bough. The composition, all verticals and high contrast, invokes Louisiana’s long history of lynching. But the allusion felt unintended; at best the work was ignorant, at worst a frivolous provocation.   

When these images were shown during Prospect.4 this year, they almost certainly stirred memories of Hurricane Katrina, which so doggedly untethered local lives from daily rhythms. Still, “Batture Ritual” resonated far beyond localism—New Yorkers may have seen echoes of Sandy in the floodplain. After all, the future of our warming world may one day belong to the batture, too.

— Zack Hatfield



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