Photos by John Slaughter
A photographic history of one of Acadiana's prettiest towns.
“Grand Coteau is not Williamsburg. It’s a lived-in town,” writes photographer John Slaughter in the preface of Grand Coteau, his new book that captures the historic structures, longtime residents and rural vistas of this most picturesque of Acadiana towns in a sequence of photographs taken from 1977 through 2012. Grand Coteau is not large—the St. Landry Parish village was listed as having 1040 residents at the time of the 2000 census. But even though it lies just a couple of miles from I-49, its iconic religious institutions, ancient stands of live oaks and resourcefully preserved historic buildings lend the town an aura of time-defying spirituality that continues to mark it as a place apart.
Slaughter and his wife, Hilary, have lived in Grand Coteau (French for “Big Ridge”) since 1976—the year when Hilary answered an ad seeking a Spanish teacher at the venerable Academy of the Sacred Heart School. The couple drove out into the Acadiana countryside to find a hamlet with a historic heart, breathtaking live oak alleys, and a tight-knit local community that preserved a close connection to its rural roots. In the thirty-five years since, the Slaughters have continued to live in Grand Coteau, teaching, establishing local landmarks including The Kitchen Shop and Catahoula’s Restaurant; and photographing. Always photographing.
Indeed, looking at the images in this book, it’s clear that the camera has never been far from John Slaughter’s hand. With a lush, saturated photographic style that illustrates a long interest in exploring the possibilities of color, Slaughter’s photography focuses on the dramatic, sometimes surreal, interplay between natural and man-made in South Louisiana. He captures the fresh-plowed fields, storm-dark skies and dew-bright dawns when the humidity is so thick it turns the air silver. Here are the grand institutions such as Sacred Heart and St. Charles Borromeo Church, photographed wreathed in morning mist or rainbow-touched in the wake of a fast-moving summer storm. Here are Grand Coteau’s humbler structures—their hip roofs, gardens, porches, pets, peeling paint and washing lines serving as reminders of all the people who live and have ever lived within their walls.
Recognizing that you cannot separate a town from the people who call it home, Slaughter’s book focuses on the people of Grand Coteau as much as it does the place. So here are the people themselves—residents and visitors, wealthy and poor, young and old, black and white, in the present and long-departed. In one photo from 1978, tousle-haired kids shoot marbles in the schoolyard of St. Ignatius School. In another, worshippers sit in silent contemplation at the Grotto of St. Charles College. A schoolgirl wades knee-deep along a flooded lane after a heavy rain. Portraits of priests and nuns capture the town’s deep-rooted relationship with its iconic Catholic institutions. Storekeepers and schoolteachers, farm hands and firemen, and former sharecroppers are here—each accompanied by a concise personal history that anchors its subject in Grand Coteau’s past and present. Images of artists at work and play introduce some of the creative souls who, like the Slaughters, have been attracted to the town’s close-knit community and slightly higgledy-piggledy charm—and chosen to make it home. These are the photographs of a man at home.
“The town in terms of its structural presence—its buildings—has not changed a lot,” observed Slaughter. “But the feeling of the town has changed a lot. It’s not isolated like it once was.” Ultimately, this is why he felt moved to sift through thirty-five years of photographs to select the photos that appear in Grand Coteau. “It’s to give people a window on a very small, but very unique, Louisiana town at a time when the world has changed so much. A place that time passes by. That’s kind of precious.”
Details. Details. Details.
Grand Coteau by John Slaughter 158 pages, hardcover Published by University of Louisiana at Lafayette Press, October 2012 grandcoteaubook.com