NOLA photographer finds a passion for monuments
New Orleans monuments have been making headlines lately – well, four of them, anyway. But what most New Orleanians don’t know is that these high-profile links to the past are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg when it comes to statues in this historic city.
Ashley Merlin knows.
She can tell you that New Orleans has more than 300 public plaques, statues and monuments, and she can rattle off dates and facts about most of them. She has taken toothbrush to marble on more than one occasion to help restore an iconic reminder of the city’s past. And she photographed and researched 126 of New Orleans’ most memorable monuments for her book, “Statuesque New Orleans.”
Not that Ashley set out to become an authority on local monuments.
“I hadn’t really noticed our statues until I started researching them for my book,” says the New Orleans native and professional photographer. “I remember going to the holocaust memorial when it was installed, and I loved the Ida Kohlmeyer pieces on Poydras. But it had never occurred to me that all of this wonderful art was right in front of my eyes.”
That changed during a 2006 photography-book workshop in Maine with nationally renowned photographer Joyce Tennyson. Ashley, a graduate of Lehigh University with a B.A. in journalism, had returned to New Orleans after school, worked in PR, then opened a photography business. Then Katrina came, and, like other New Orleanians, Ashley started re-evaluating things.
“I knew I wanted to do a book, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do a book on,” she says. “I took a lot of my work with me to the workshop, and it included a photo of the Gumbel Fountain in Audubon Park. It was something that just resonated with me.”
The idea for a photo book on New Orleans monuments was born.
“I came home and started researching, and realized no one had done one. There was one black and white book on statues from the 1960s, and only one copy of if in the library.”
“Statuesque New Orleans” took four years – and a second workshop with Tennyson -- to produce. It involved numerous interviews with historians, artists and librarians, and an equal number of hours spent in exploratory reconnoitering.
“I started driving around and looking,” Ashley recalls. “My dad would ride with me so that I could pop out of the car and take photos. It became a family project.”
Ashley decided to organize the book chronologically, in 50-year chunks, and to self-publish to maintain timing and creative control. She collected people, she says – an editor, a graphic designer – along the way.
Criterion for inclusion of a statue in the book, says its author, was the historical significance of either the artist or the person/event represented. The book includes indexes by artist and name, as well as maps of the monuments, and many readers have used the tome for driving tours.
But hers is not merely a picture book; it’s an anthology of stories. Stories about well-known local leaders like Irish benefactress Margaret Haughery in the Lower Garden District, or Civil Rights leader Avery Alexander, who stands near City Hall. Stories about lesser-known icons, like Jacques the Butcher in the French Market, or Molly Marine at Elks Place, or the World War I Doughboy in front of the new University Medical Center. And mythical depictions, including Diana, goddess of the hunt, tucked away in an almost hidden niche near the reptile exhibit at the Audubon Zoo.
“Statues are history lessons,” Ashley says. “And statues are artworks. This city treasures its art and culture. We need to appreciate and preserve them.”
Following the publication of “Statuesque New Orleans” in 2010, Ashley was contacted by the Monumental Task Committee, a private nonprofit founded in 1989 by Pierre McGraw.
“In all my research I hadn’t crossed paths with them, but they’ve been around for 26 years. It’s so great to work with an organization with such a great mission.”
The group keeps a running list of local monuments in need of TLC, and holds a quarterly “Meet Me At The Monument” event where volunteers clean or landscape them. The group also works with local and national conservators to restore important New Orleans pieces.
Nowadays, Ashley continues to pursue her passion for local history by working with the MTC and giving frequent talks and workshops on New Orleans monuments. She also will be writing a column for NolaVie, which will profile unique and interesting local works.
“There’s so much we can do for our monuments,” she says. “Many of these are old, and time, dirt, algae, even chemicals used to clean them in the past have caused their deterioration. There’s such a dramatic change when you restore them.”
Ashley is hard-pressed to name a favorite local statue, but admits a special fondness for the memorial to Irish immigrants on Pontchartrain Boulevard. “America was such a place of hope and new beginnings for so many people.”
And she has come a long way from her not-so-observant childhood, she says with a laugh: “I’ve started noticing things. Especially when a statue is wearing Mardi Gras beads or a t-shirt.”
Come back on Wednesday for Ashley Merlin's first column, Up On A Pedestal, which will tell you about the Fountain of the Four Winds at Lakefront Airport.
Renee Peck is editor of NolaVie. Email her at [email protected]