Metropolis

The Story of the Really Big Traffic Cone Stuck in a New Orleans Pothole

A man holds his hand up to his forehead and stares at an 8-foot-tall orange traffic cone a few feet from him on a New Orleans street.
Steve Scharf, 41, tries to measure the height of the cone against his own height. He told Times-Picayune that he was over 6 feet tall. Courtesy of Chris Granger/the Times-Picayune | nola.com

On Tuesday, Chris Granger, a staff photographer for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, started his day by taking photos of a really big traffic cone. Granger, who has lived in New Orleans for most of his life and worked for the Times-Picayune for 27 years, ended up taking a bunch of delightful photos of the big cone in an Uptown pothole. The photos are superb: You can see them, and read the Times-Picayune’s story, here.

Slate spoke with Granger on Friday to get the story behind the big cone. He explained how this unusually large object came to be, why it fits with the spirit of New Orleans, and how a respected professional photographer goes about shooting such a very big traffic cone. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Slate: How did you end up with this assignment?

Chris Granger: I’d heard about it through social media. Somebody jokingly called it a “king cone.” You know, like King Kong. And I was driving near that intersection and glanced down the street and saw this bright pyramid-looking orange beacon several blocks down. It was funny timing, because one of my editors reached out to me and said, “Have you heard about this cone? We should go check it out.”

What’s the context someone outside the city needs to understand?

New Orleans’ streets are notoriously bad. It’s easy to point fingers, but we live in a swamp. It’s a constant struggle. We’re sinking slowly, and it’s hard to maintain quality streets.

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The Sewerage & Water Board came out to do some work in front of my house a couple years ago, and they dug a hole that went perpendicular to my street. They filled it in with gravel. And one of the crew said, “Oh, we’ll be back to fill it in.” Weeks go by, the gravel starts going out of the hole, and the hole’s getting deeper and deeper. I started seeing hubcaps in my front yard, because they fly off the tires. And then I started seeing little corner pieces of bumpers. And then one day when I’m loading my car with camera gear, a car was coming down the street, and they hit it. And their airbags go off hitting the puddle. The windows were open, and it was like a mushroom cloud of baby powder from both the driver side and passenger side window, from this minivan. So that’s the kind of world we live in here.

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What do you know about the backstory of this giant cone?

We had the Mardi Gras float house phenomenon this year. There was no Mardi Gras, but lots and lots of people decorated their houses: it was full-on Mardi Gras float-style papier-mâché, cover-the-whole-front-of-the-house type of decorations. And somebody mentioned that this was a decoration that somebody had for Mardi Gras, that they repurposed and put it in the pothole. It’s an old pothole apparently, that they’ve had [regular] cones around for a while.

I never saw the float house, but I heard from a couple people that it was a house that was just poking fun at our city and how much the streets need to be repaired. Because Mardi Gras is about making fun of people, and no one is held sacred.

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What was the cone like up close?

New Orleanians are very crafty. Whoever made this, I tip my hat to them, because it’s some sort of rubbery kind of material. It wasn’t papier-mâché. It had a little more density to it. When you poked it, it did bounce back a bit.

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What did you do when you got there?

I stopped and hung out. I was out there for about an hour and a half. We chatted with people. A couple people walked up. It’s like, why would I spend an hour and a half photographing a cone? It happened to be kind of a quiet morning, so I grabbed a coffee down the street and went back to the pothole and waited for things to happen.

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What did people think of it?

I think people were enamored by it. Because, you know, we will make art out of potholes. It is not unusual to find people putting in mannequins or some sort of flower beds in a pothole in New Orleans. It’s weirdly part of the culture here. I’ve got photographs somewhere where people planted corn in a pothole, and put a scarecrow in a pothole. I’ve always joked that I could come out with a coffee table book of New Orleans pothole art.

A couple of people we talked to said, “Oh, Sewerage & Water Board should consider this while they’re waiting to repair these holes, just to make it more interesting.” Because it causes people to slow down even more. It was 8-foot, we estimated, roughly, and it really caused you to slow down even more and take a look and avoid that pothole.

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How did you decide to go about shooting this very weirdly scaled and motionless object? Did you go in with a plan of how to shoot it?

No. With photography—and especially in New Orleans, maybe it’s part of our music culture—I try to approach a lot of these assignments without any preconceived ideas. I just go in with an open mind. Sometimes with inanimate photoshoots, because there’s no people involved, I find I spend more time on them. So I kept waiting for somebody or something to come by to give it a sense of scale. Otherwise, it just would have been, you know, “alright, here’s this orange cone, it looks kind of tall.” And that’s why I spent roughly an hour and a half, which seems so silly for something that’s, like, a cone.

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There was one shot that I used where a big truck drove next to it. I grabbed some shots of that, and I thought, Wow, that cone is even taller than that tall truck. And then there was this grand New Orleans kind of mansion that I shot, at an angle where you could see this house rising behind it, but half of it was blocked with the orange cone.

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How did you deal with shooting something that looked so inherently fake?

That is the challenge, too, because I could have put on a really wide angle fisheye lens and made it look even more ridiculously tall, like Washington Monument tall. So, as silly as it is, I knew I had to be careful, where I couldn’t shoot too low to the ground with a wide angle lens because it would distort it. People would call you out. But I did want to capture the depth of it somehow, so I squatted down about a foot or two, but basically kept it the way it was. It was just so tall that it didn’t require any tricks of the camera.

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How tall are you?

I’m 5-foot-9. I tried to reach the top, and I couldn’t reach it.

It does seem from the photos that there was almost this magnetic pull for people to touch the cone.

Yes, you can absolutely say that.

What did you shoot the rest of the day?

I did a crime scene. And I did go to a restaurant in the French Quarter to photograph one of the oldest restaurants in the quarter reopening this week, after a year of being closed. And some storm follow-up. We had some localized flooding, nothing major.

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Covering the city, which is notorious for its murder rate and shootings, and restaurants and good food and music: It’s the good, the bad, the ugly. You’d go from happy moments to sad moments to interesting moments, all within a few hours. When you can intersperse those with something like this, it adds levity to people’s lives. I feel like it’s important to include that in our coverage. It’s not earth-shattering; it’s a cone. But anytime you can find a little bit of humor in life, I think it’s really helpful.

You can see more of Granger’s photos on Instagram.

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