Story By Jenn Gidman
Images By Nilo Hodge
Nilo Hodge photographs a shuttered New Orleans during the pandemic with his Tamron SP 70-200mm VC G2 and SP 15-30mm VC G2 lenses.
The Big-Easy Like You’ve Never Seen It
Just before the country started shutting down due to the coronavirus outbreak, Nilo Hodge moved with his wife from Pennsylvania to New Orleans, where they’d taken their vows last October. He recalls his wedding as one of the best days of his life, with all of the energy and excitement you’d expect to find in the Big Easy.
The past few months, however, have shown a very different side of this Louisiana hot spot, as shops, restaurants, and nightlife venues shut down, leaving the busiest parts of the city virtually deserted. That’s when Nilo picked up his camera to capture another side of New Orleans. “My wife is a nurse and has been working overnight shifts, so I started walking around, especially at night, to document the city during the early days of the pandemic,” he explains. “It also gave me the chance to learn my way around the city.”
On his mini-excursions, Nilo brought his Tamron SP 70-200 F/2.8 VC G2 and SP 15-30mm F/2.8 VC G2 lenses. “I was turned on to Tamron lenses when I started shooting weddings and family portraits,” he says. “I was on the hunt for an affordable, versatile, high-quality lens, and I was introduced to the 24-70mm. Then Tamron came out with its G2 line. I began using the 70-200, and now I love that lens. It’s been especially handy for me during pandemic times, because its reach allows me to get the shots I want while still social distancing. I’ve recently added the 15-30, and that lens lets me do some cool, wide-angle long exposures, as well as get up close in tight quarters.”
One of Nilo’s goals while wandering around New Orleans was to highlight its iconic places and characters, but in the context of the pandemic. One of the first things that caught his eye: St. Louis Cathedral, the oldest cathedral in continuous use in the United States. “The area in front of the cathedral is usually filled with musicians, buskers, and tourists,” he says. “There was literally not a single person there with me. Then, to get those perfectly symmetrical social-distancing signs on either side of the building into the photo added one more visual indicator of the times we’re in.”
The somewhat dystopian feel of a French Quarter alley didn’t escape Nilo’s notice. “In New Orleans, the tradition is if someone’s shutters are open, you’re welcome to enter,” he says. “So to see them all closed up was a bit unsettling. There were three older gentlemen walking by, and one of them had a bright blue shirt on that I thought would pop in the photo. They were walking in a straight line, so I waited until the first two had passed out of sight, then took the picture. The man’s face mask is another signal something is amiss.”
Nilo went for the same effect in his black-and-white photo showing the juxtaposition of a typical French Quarter street performer with a bike rider wearing his face mask in the background. “This guy played his trumpet in the same spot on Royal Street every day during the shutdown,” Nilo says. “By shooting this at F/2.8, I was able to blur out the background just enough so the bike rider wasn’t distracting from my main subject, but you could still see that this wasn’t just any bike rider—it was a bike rider during the pandemic.”
While strolling down Bourbon Street one muggy morning after it had rained, Nilo spotted the boarded-up windows of a nightclub. “I really went for composition in this shot,” he says. “When I saw the wooden board across those windows, I knew it would serve as the perfect background and frame for someone walking in front of it. I had to wait for a while, but eventually this guy, mask hanging from his ears, walked into the scene.”
St. Charles Avenue is one of the main thoroughfares for Mardi Gras parades, and it’s where Nilo spotted a female performer one morning, blaring music out of the speakers on her bike. “I didn’t have my camera set up, though, so I wasn’t able to photograph her that day,” he says. A few days later, Nilo caught up with her again, this time on Bourbon Street, and this time he had his camera ready. “A news crew was interviewing her about what it was like being in Phase One of the lockdown, when suddenly she started singing and dancing,” he says. “I was fortunate enough to capture her midsong. She was so exuberant, just like you expect New Orleans to be, lockdown or no lockdown.”
Nilo’s nighttime explorations gave him the chance to experiment with long-exposure photos. “I knew I wanted to do a shot of one of the city’s famous streetcars,” he says. “I took this photo along the St. Charles Streetcar line, said to be the oldest continuously running streetcar line in the world. Because of the pandemic, the streetcars were only coming through about every 30 minutes or so, so I had to wait, then get my timing exactly right. I started taking the photo when the streetcar was stopped; the streaks came as the car started to pull away. The illusion those streaks provide make it appear as if the streetcar is coming toward you, but it was actually moving away from me.”
As he sauntered past Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club, Nilo marveled at what a difference a few weeks could make. “Every time I’ve walked by here in the past, before the pandemic, there were hundreds of people in the street,” he says. “I waited 10 minutes or so for a car to drive by, so I could push my exposure up to 1 second and get that red streak from the car’s taillights in the photo.”
Among the more jarring scenes Nilo spotted was along Bourbon Street during one of his nighttime walks, early in the shutdown. “All of these places were boarded up,” he says. “It was eerily quiet. I wanted to use the 70-200 for this image, because it was able to give me the compression I wanted to bring all of these venues together. This is usually such a lively street, and here it was, not another person in sight. It was haunting.”
To see more of Nilo Hodge’s work, visit his website.