Beauty is in the eye of the beholder
Prior to my meeting Roy F. Guste, Jr., I’d only seen a couple of his photos of burlesque dancers and none of him. I didn’t know what I’d behold when his door opened. Instead of some backstage character with snakeskin boots and a pallor, I was welcomed by a compact smiling man with a shock of thick white hair and eyes that twinkled when he smiled. His plastered walls are painted a warm shade of Van Gogh’s bed yellow and covered with extraordinary images of New Orleans.
As we talk it becomes clear that this man is in love with the city his family has inhabited for more than five generations, “My first name is also a family name. The Roys were on the boats with Bienville.” His great great grandfather is Antoine – yeah that Antoine!
Roy has at written 10 books on Creole cuisine and is an acknowledged Creole cuisine expert and historian.
So what’s with all these photographs?
He grew up Uptown. For you locals he went to Jesuit and then on to Cordon Bleu. When he turned 18, he decided the Uptown life wasn’t for him so he grabbed his stuff and moved to an apartment in the Quarter. Although his family owned Antoine’s, he applied for (and got!) a job there. He worked as a cashier, and on his 18th birthday had dinner and ordered his first bottle of wine from the Roy family wine cellar. He got up the next day and went to work.
Roy had been shooting photos from a young age, as the kids in his family all had Brownie cameras. When he was about 12, his dad bought him a Pentax Spotmatic. He was entranced by the light meter in the viewfinder. It taught him a lot about light, lessons he has mastered today. He doesn’t use a flash. Roy never really thought about photography as a career – he was kind of busy, as he eventually ran Antoine’s from the mid 70’s to about the mid 80’s.
Roy is self admittedly shy and retiring, and the stress of dealing with 200 employees and 600 diners every day eventually became a nightmare for him. He had books to write, and so that’s what he did!
After Katrina, Roy got into Real Estate, and with it shooting of photos of houses. He found himself in some of the most gorgeous homes in the City, full of little details that were often overlooked. So he started to shoot those little details. “More people needed to see what I got to see”. These architectural photos were well received so he set out to do more artistic work, “but I didn’t have a good camera”. This of course didn’t stop him. “I always tell people it’s not the camera. Go shoot the picture with whatever you have”.
Many of his photos depict New Orleans in the fog. “It’s not that I came upon it and shot it. They have been purposefully planned. I like to shoot in the rain and fog so I have to wait for the elements to come together.” He says he knows that in some ways he’s shaping the viewer’s memory. “It’s not so much the way they remember it as the way they WANT to remember it.”
Looking at the photos on the walls of his rooms, dozens of photos, I noticed stunning shots of Mardi Gras Indians, but nary a float, pile of beads or masks in sight. “I made a decision once I determined to do photography as art that I would not be known for Mardi Gras pictures, I shot the Indians because I felt my portfolio needed them. Over the last seven years those photos have gotten better and better because they know me and give me the shot.”
When asked what makes him raise his camera and push the button, he responds: “If I see something funny or odd. But mostly it’s when I see something beautiful.” A master of light, he’s constantly aware of the lighting present around him. He recently did a series of photographs of sunsets reflected in puddles left by a rain near the railroad tracks near his house, simply because he found beauty in the reflections of that light.
Who would he most like to photograph? “My great Grandfather, I have a half finished novel about him in my desk drawer.” Fifteen minutes later he’s unveiling a 24×36 shot of a burlesque beauty that had been recently delivered. She looks like an old time Fan Dancer – a stunner on stage at Siberia on St. Claude Avenue. Roy explains that he left a lot of the noise in and purposely didn’t photoshop the little bits of detritus off the stage floor as it “keeps her in context.” He also reduced the sharpness a bit because it “added too much black.” The shot is breathtaking.
“I made a decision to shoot the burlesque explosion because it’s beautiful and theatrical.” He moved to the Quarter just about the time the old school burlesque clubs on Bourbon were shutting down. He also remembers as a little kid walking down Bourbon and one of the doors to the clubs would be open and his dad would say, “Don’t look in there. Don’t look in there.” Once he moved out he remembers the Champagne glass lady and the shows that included musicians, magicians, dog trick acts and comedians.
Because it’s beautiful. Roy’s eye beholds the beauty in everything he chooses to shoot so that the rest of us can see it too. Yes that just rained on gleaming flagstone is exactly how I want to remember it so thanks for clicking the shutter at just the right time and for being there.