Warding off forgetting: Photographer Deborah Luster at the Cassilhaus salon

Some people just start right out with the correct name. Deborah Luster, for instance. Luster, a photographer who works in black and white, makes pictures so luminous they probably glow in the dark. Now nationally and internationally acclaimed, and the winner of many grants and prizes, she lives in New Orleans and Galway, Ireland. Although I’d admired her work for years, I’d never met her until her June 10th artist talk at Cassilhaus, where she is the current artist-in-residence.

At Cassilhaus after the Deborah Luster talk. Photo by Frank Konhaus. Left to right, Kate Dobbs Ariail, photographer MJ Sharp, and Emily Kass, director of the Ackland Art Museum in Chapel Hill. Patrick Dougherty sculpture on the landing, at left.

It turns out that Luster is from Fayetteville, Arkansas, where I was born, and hearing that hardscrabble accent as she talked about her family and background in photography was such a pleasure to me, even though she was speaking about some very tough stuff.  You can  hear her voice, recorded for an NPR interview in 2010, and see some images from her haunting portrait work done in three of Louisiana’s many prisons, here. She’s represented by Jack Shainman Gallery, and more recent images–a long series in circular format of murder sites in New Orleans–are available to view on the gallery’s site.

Luster is the most recent in the series of artists-in-residence at the extraordinary Cassilhaus, the home of architect Ellen Cassilly and entrepreneur/photography collector Frank Konhaus. They designed their home to include an apartment-studio for artists they would invite to stay a few weeks or even months. (This New York Times feature from 2009 includes a good slide show.) Generally, the artist’s residence culminates with an exhibition in the gallery connecting the two sides of the house, and often there will be an artist talk or reception as well. It’s an inspired form of artistic patronage, and the events call to mind descriptions of the great Parisian intellectual salons, where a variety of creative people fill the air with something more than idle chat.

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