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Frank Relle: Shooting Chest Deep in Alligator Swamps Late at Night

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Street view photograph of the art gallery of Frank Relle in New Orleans Louisiana

In this episode of the Fine Art Photography podcast, we talk about the landscape work of New Orleans-based photographer Frank Relle, who owns an art gallery on Royal Street, and has a habit of standing in dark swamp waters late at night surrounded by gators. But the results are spectacular.

Full episode transcript

In this episode, Frank Relle, who shoots swamp scenes late at night, in chest deep water, surrounded by alligators

Welcome back to another episode of the Fine Art Photography podcast. In this episode, we will learn about the fascinating night photography of New Orleans-based photographer and gallery owner Frank Relle.

Relle has become known for his long-exposure night photographs made while standing in chest deep water surrounded by alligators. He says he doesn’t feel fear, but rather peace, being in nature. In one interview he said when he hikes carrying a backpack, he feels like a human, but when he glides in a boat along the surface of a river or swamp, he feels more attuned to nature — not like a human, but like an animal.

After Hurricane Katrina, Relle began shooting the ruins of old New Orleans neighborhoods and the remains of typical NOLA shotgun houses, showing their storm damage. 

Relle said that after the disastrous oil pipeline leak in the Gulf of Mexico, he realized that water was the common denominator, and it pulled him back to shooting the natural world — back to the rivers and swamps near New Orleans.

He said this about one of his experiences shooting in the swamp: — Quote  “Sitting on the edge of the boat with my legs dangling in the water, I flipped on my flashlight. The red crescent eyes of one, two…14 gators glimmered as they skimmed across the dark waters of the swamp. This was no time to hesitate. The wind was finally calm in this protected cypress cove. The arching limbs, draped with Spanish moss, were perfectly mirrored in the water. The photograph I wanted was here  but it wouldn’t last. I checked the seals on my dry suit and slowly lowered myself into the water. My feet sunk into the silty mud as the warm water pressed against my body and around my neck.” — end quote.

Majestic, moss draped cypress trees are often the heroes of his landscape photographs. 

He carefully positions lights among the cypress trees draped, giving them a magical appearance in the dark swamps. With long exposures, water smooths to glass, stars turn into streaks across the sky.

The images are haunting, beautiful yes — but also a little sinister. Should we be afraid of what’s lurking in the dark waters? — and out among the trunks of those cypress trees?

In addition to shooting trees in gator and snake-infested swamps, Relle has also made long exposure night photographs in NOLA’s famous above-ground cemeteries, in its upscale and in its downtrodden neighborhoods, in petroleum refineries, in the city’s beautiful parks, … and he has been to a place that I have also photographed, the abandoned ghost town at Rodney, Mississippi. His image called “Dowd,”  D – O – W- D – is a spectacular night photograph of the old wooden Masonic lodge in Rodney — I have made a series of black and white photographs of that same building myself.

Looking at the neighborhood images, I wonder how he gets away with shooting big houses in the garden district late at night with a light shining onto the house. That kind of thing tends to rattle the neighbors.

Relle’s photographs are richly colored, but having been shot at night, the colors are a little skewed — and I mean that in a good way. Relle was interviewed on CBS This Morning. Asked by the interviewer about the importance of light to his work, Relle said “Lighting is the language, the music of photography.”

Relle also owns a New Orleans art gallery, located on Royal, that features his photographs  — and you can see that space in the CBS interview. It’s a beautiful space — very “New Orleans” in style, with two sets of French doors standing open to welcome visitors, deep gray walls lined with framed photographs, gorgeous hardwood floors, antique furniture, a fireplace, and ornate old chandeliers dangling overhead.

The gallery is located in the historic Miltenberger House, once the home of the Princess of Monaco.

Originally from France, Dr. and Mrs. Miltenberger came to New Orleans in the 1790’s, having fled violence in St. Domingue where they’d owned coffee plantations. Dr. Miltenberger was a physician and very experienced treating Yellow Fever.

Well what do you think? How far would you go to get the shot? Would you stand in dark water surrounded by alligators?

As always, you can find links to everything mentioned in this podcast in the write-up or on my blog at i catch shadows dot com.

Thanks for listening, and I’ll talk to you again real soon.

Sources

CBS News: Frank Relle on his work, photography methods and his “happy place” March 13, 2021

Via NOLA Vie: Artists in Their Own Words: Frank Relle April 29, 2016

FrankRelle.com: Dowd.

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Keith Dotson

Keith Dotson is a professional fine art photographer who specializes in black and white landscapes, cityscapes, and abstractions from nature.

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