[StBernard] Keeping his perspective
westley at da-parish.com
Mon Aug 18 17:23:18 EDT 2008
Keeping his perspective
A local photographer uses humor to maintain his focus
Monday, August 18, 2008
When's the last time you met somebody from Chalmette who warned you not to
confuse him with the king of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf?
Well, they both wear glasses, and they both have gray hair. But that's about
it -- except for this: The local guy's name is Carl Gustafson (Gus-TAF-son)
and he is of Swedish (and French) descent.
Gustafson, 67, is a Hurricane Katrina survivor whose sense of humor has
gotten him through three years of living in various states of limbo and
disarray, including sleeping in a garage and cooking in a greenhouse.
"I'm on high ground here now. Only got 71/2 feet of water here," he said of
his post-storm home near Nunez Community College. "My place in Buccaneer
Village got 131/2 feet."
A swimming pool in the backyard of Gustafson's current home is loaded with
fish. It was like that when he bought the house.
"There were fish in the kitchen," he said, so the fish in the pool were no
Gustafson is a marine and military commercial photographer whose credits
include covers of Aviation Week, Maritime Reporter, and other marine and
military industry publications. He did photography for Textron Marine for
decades. (His dad worked in the stereotype department at the old New Orleans
Item, The States-Item, The Times-Picayune and the Chicago Tribune.)
Katrina left her mark on all of Gustafson's pictures and negatives, most of
which were from the pre-digital era. Old fishing pictures, years of photos
of Mardi Gras in the French Quarter, classic freeze pictures from
ice-covered old West End restaurants, countless photos of vessels and boats
being tested -- they all now have a surreal watery kaleidoscope look to
them, stuck in albums, only parts of the original photos still visible.
"That's the worst part, losing the negatives and pictures," he said, opening
a container of ruined memories, the first trace of sadness coming into his
voice. "You couldn't duplicate this ever again." Then he paused a moment.
"You do realize only six houses out of 30,000 were dry down here?" he asked,
as if to explain what happened to his collection.
But it's not his style to dwell on the bad stuff. He'd rather show off his
home renovations, most of which he is doing himself.
"I'm a jack of all trades, you could say. I got a shrimp boat, too. Matter
of fact, a guy told me, 'You built a shrimp boat, you ought to be able to
build a house,' " Gustafson said.
He is putting in walls made of tongue-in-groove wood -- cypress, poplar and
pine -- he got from Ovett, Miss., and he is proud of that.
"The whole house is going to be wood," he said.
The tour slows for a moment in one room, where a dark-haired woman suddenly
"That's Elena, my companion," he said, introducing her. "She's from the
Philippines, 8,000 miles away. You've got to go a long way to get somebody
to come to Chalmette."
They met on the Internet. She travels here on six-month visas and has made
"She loves it here," Gustafson said. "We went fishing. It cost me $90 for
her fishing license -- talk about an out-of-state license. And mine cost
Once when she went back to the Philippines between visits, there were two
"I told her you better come back to Chalmette where it's safe," Gustafson
When he was younger, Gustafson was part of the local music scene and worked
for two record distributorships, A-1 and All-South, back when there were
labels such as Minit and Instant. He remembers Allen Toussaint recording at
Cosimo Matassa's studio in the French Quarter.
His record collection, which dates back to the 1950s and '60s, includes
early 45s from Fats Domino, Johnny Adams, Eddie Bo, a Dr. John instrumental
named "Storm Warning" and countless others.
Gustafson lived in Waveland, Miss., in 1969 when another unwelcome watery
visitor, Camille, stopped in.
"I was living near Casino Magic before Casino Magic (now Hollywood Casino)
came along. I saved 'em all, cleaned 'em with Whistle (a cleaner) and they
were fine," he said of the records.
Then he moved to Chalmette.
Thirty-six years later, Katrina got them. But this go-round, Gustafson said
he doesn't have the time or the desire to go through the painstaking
cleaning process. So he is planning to donate them all to WWOZ. "There's
some promotional DJ copies in there, real old labels, pretty good stuff," he
But photography, which he took up while he was a student at Bay High School
in Bay St. Louis, Miss., became his career for the past 40-plus years. And
he has cherished every minute of it.
"I don't ever want to retire," he said. "I just want to shoot pictures --
that's all I've ever done."
Gustafson is definitely a glass-half-full guy.
"I've got arthritis. I take pain pills at night. The doctor wanted to give
me depression medicine, but I said, 'No, I'll get through it,' " he said.
And so far he has, with regular doses of this philosophy: "He who laughs,
. . . . . . .
Columnist Angus Lind can be reached at alind at timespicayune.com or at
504.826.3449. Read him online at www.nola.com/living.
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