Cherchez La Femme—A Review

08:00 January 07, 2020
By: Debbie Lindsey

After hitting your fifth pot-hole, receiving a screwy S&W bill, spending six hours at the DMV, or watching our national news report upon one more in the seemingly endless assaults by Trump to undermine women, social justice, and our environment, you need something other than (or in addition to) a stiff drink to restore something resembling a positive outlook. I just received a happy pill in the form of a book, Cherchez La Femme: New Orleans Women by Cheryl Gerber.

"If a picture is worth a thousand words," as the adage goes, then my small column will lack the proper words to do justice to all the women in this photography book. Adding to this impressive volume of gorgeous and colorful images of women representing our city are the essays by Constance Adler, Karen Celestan, Katy Reckdahl, Helen Freund, and Geraldine Wyckoff-just to name a few whose words grace the pages. And behind each photo-image is a story, aspect, point of view, or attitude of our city, culture, cuisine, and consciousness that needs no written text, but the writings are, nonetheless, compelling and complement the images Cheryl has captured with her eye and that make our city so unique-our New Orleans women.

For all the disparities present in New Orleans in terms of education, health care, wages, and environmental equity, there is a democracy of shared commonalities that runs through our town like a river. Sometimes its waters are too fast, too rough, but sometimes it meanders so peacefully that everyone gets to drink from it. Women here know how to imbibe in life, whether rich or poor, and, if not every day, then at least more often than in other places. We are women living in the most magical and bat-shit crazy town imaginable, and I defy anyone elsewhere to dispute this.

Our women, who make our home here special, come in all colors and wear the hues that signify our feelings and flair. From our sacred black and gold attire (which we all know has the power to spur our Saints to victories) and the brilliant rainbow of colors that streak our hair and fingernails to the thousands of pink pussy caps worn by our marching women to protest the misogyny of Trump and Mardi Gras costumes flaming purple, green, and gold-we wear our pride and allegiances with flamboyance and finesse. What better way to boast of this, to document this, than with photographs?

Cherchez La Femme celebrates muses and musicians, movers and shakers (and here in New Orleans that goes well beyond political persuaders-we twerk, jerk, and bounce our power as women), chefs and collegians, philanthropists and professors. Our culinary culture is strong with women and ever growing. We are made proud being represented by the likes of Poppy Tooker, Joann Clevenger, Kristen Essig, Susan Spicer, Nina Compton, and the late Ella Brennan-the list goes on beyond my allotted word count. Leah Chase, of course, is the queen in my opinion and heart, and she went far beyond her kitchen to make our city a better place to call home. Indeed, her image is lovingly present in this book.

Philanthropists and the women of New Orleans society adorn the pages in all their glory and beauty, but with no higher elevation than that of our proud working-class women, who daily keep our lives on track. In New Orleans, as photojournalist Gerber aptly proves, powerful personalities, from Gayle Benson to Cheeky Blakk, help to level the playing field and show off the diversity of our women. Whether you are Mayor Latoya Cantrell, activist Sandy Rosenthal, or a second-lining Baby Doll, you equally make our town proud-and what's not to love about Trixie Minx? Let's also never ever even think to forget our teachers, librarians, and moms and give our thanks to the cashier at Rouses who makes sure you get your Camellia red beans rang up and bagged. How about a round of applause to Jennifer and Karen Terrannova for helping us make groceries?

Cheryl's concern with her book is that she could not possibly showcase all the great women of New Orleans. Neither one of us could contain our admiration and delight over the ladies who we know and love and regret not being in this book. I feel I have not done justice here on this page to her book, the women within it, or the women that shape us as a city. Here I must make full disclosure: I have known Cheryl Gerber for nearly 30 years. If I seem to favor her book, it is in part because of the respect I have had for her work capturing and honoring our city through the years while never turning her lens away from the harsh realities of life in New Orleans, such as in her book New Orleans: Life and Death in the Big Easy. Nevertheless, all of her work-and her heartfelt love for this city-lifts my spirits and keeps my eyes focused on our magic. Cherchez La Femme illustrates the power our women and their (our) contribution to keeping this place unique. And here I must also add my thanks to the men who understand this and love us.

Leah Chase once told Cheryl in regard to her work as a photographer, "Keep doing what you're doing because it is important." I feel this book is saying that to all the women of New Orleans.

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