[JPL] Photographer Michael P. Smith Who Documented music, culture and folklife of New Orleans

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Sat Sep 27 14:02:01 EDT 2008

Photographer Michael P. Smith passed away
Friday, September 26, 2008 at noon
Cremation and arrangements pending

Michael P. Smith is a New Orleans native and award-winning
professional freelance photographer. His special interest for nearly
40 years has been the music, culture and folklife of New Orleans and
Louisiana. He is well known for documenting New Orleans social club
parades and jazz funerals, neighborhood Mardi Gras traditions,
spiritual church ceremonies, and many of the city and state's renowned
jazz, blues rhythm and blues, and gospel musicians. Smith photographed
at every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival since it began in 1970
until his retirement in 2004, when he was honored with a major
grandstand exhibition and photo kiosks placed around the fairgrounds.

Smith's work has been presented at the Museum of American History
(Smithsonian Institution), the International Center for Photography in
New York and the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at Columbia University, as well
as numerous other museums, galleries and jazz festivals in America and
Europe. A major retrospective of his work was presented in 1999 at the
Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.

Smith's photographs are in the permanent collections of the
Bibliotheque National in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the
Smithsonian Institution and, locally, the Historic New Orleans
Collection, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of
Southern Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.

Michael P. Smith photographs grace the covers of many CDs and record
albums; illustrate numerous books and magazine articles published in
America and Europe; and are in continual demand for documentary films
produced at home and abroad. He received two Photographer's
Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts early in his
career and his prints have toured worldwide through the United States
Information Agency (USIA) and the Louisiana State Museum.
Professionally, he was a location assignment photographer for Black
Star, the noted New York booking agency, for over 20 years. He has
photographed in Cuba on three different occasions, documenting
laborers, music in the streets and folk religions rarely captured on

Smith's work is represented through five photography books including
Spirit World: Pattern in the Expressive Folk Culture of African
American New Orleans; A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans
Music; New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History; Jazz Fest Memories;
and Mardi Gras Indians. The latter is a visual and sociological
history of the unique masking and musical traditions still alive in
New Orleans' older black neighborhoods.

In the last few years, Mike Smith has been honored with numerous
awards. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana
Endowment for the Humanities in 2002 and was named Music Photographer
of the Year by Offbeat magazine. In 2004, he received a Mayor's Arts
Award from the Arts Council of New Orleans and a Clarence John
Laughlin Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Orleans/Gulf South
chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). In
2005, he received the Delgado Society Award (New Orleans Museum of
Art), the first photographer to be so honored.

"The camera is an extension of my knowledge of the inner workings of
the community that I have come to understand over a twenty-five year
period. It's my art, my subjective view of the world I'm experiencing."
~ Michael P. Smith, 1993


Images of Mike
For decades, photographer Michael P. Smith has provided a window to a
hidden city. As a new exhibit presents the scope of his work, he talks
about his life and art -- and about living with memory loss.

By Jason Berry

In the first picture of Michael P. Smith's 1992 book A Joyful Noise: A
Celebration of New Orleans Music, Thomas A. Dorsey, the gospel
composer who worked closely with Mahalia Jackson, kneels at her grave
in New Orleans. The picture, taken in 1970, has Dorsey in a topcoat
and hat, one hand resting on the mausoleum, his body curved against
the white marble with a gray-white sky above, framed by black spokes
of a cemetery fence, in the full aura of a cold day. Dorsey's
reverence is palpable.

The stunning photograph is a cameo of Smith's poetic sensibility. For
more than 30 years, Smith immersed himself in the world of social aid
and pleasure club parades, jazz funerals and Spiritual churches. He
made his lens a floating mirror on the costumes, rituals and musical
moments that make the city such a magical place. Many photographers
have captured lasting images of the culture; Smith has created a
personal iconography, a vision of New Orleans shaped by its streets,
sacred spaces and human rhythms.

Smith began taking pictures in 1966. By the late '70s, he was
exhibiting his work in local galleries and outside the state; his work
was appearing in museums by the early '80s. Since then, he has
published five books with many exhibitions, and his photographs hang
in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bibliotech National
of Paris, and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Smith has
lectured about his work in Germany and the Netherlands, and in August
he appeared on a panel at a Columbia University jazz conference that
included an exhibition of his works.

At the very time Smith has reached the peak of his career, his life
has undergone an unsettling change -- memory loss. He recovered from
emergency heart surgery several years ago, but at 64 he now moves more
slowly, taking medication for a nerve disorder similar to Parkinson's
disease. He no longer frequents the parades and musical events where
he was a fixture for many years. He keeps working, though, culling
pictures for the next book, continuing the research and writing about
the cultural dynamics reflected in his work.

His daughter, Leslie Smith, a jazz and pop singer, now works with a
friend, Laura Hass, in archiving and maintaining his file of slides
and negatives. They sell Mike's photographs at a booth at the Jazz and
Heritage Festival, and manage the Web site for Smith's work

Smith, who lives Uptown, keeps a large studio in an aging building
just off Tchoupitoulas on Race street, directly across from the
Saulet, a massive, upscale condominium-apartment complex that was
being built when we met during the summer. The construction site shed
a curtain of dust on the neighborhood, which lies a few blocks from
the deserted St. Thomas housing project. The tiny strip of Race Street
is a remnant of the 19th century city.

Smith sat comfortably amidst his collection of folk art and images of
his own making. A huge reproduction of Professor Longhair, elbow-out
with a hand on the hip, made the rhythm-and-bluesman seem a vibrant
presence. Smith took many pictures of Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd) and
was one of a dozen people who ponied up $1000 each in launching
Tipitina's music club in 1977, in order to provide a home base for the
musician. When Byrd died in 1980, Smith photographed the funeral.

"Fess was a perfect gentleman," says Smith. "One of the politest men I
have known."

As Smith perused photographs -- by his own reckoning, he has taken a
million of them -- he continued to reflect on his life.

A photograph from Smith's book Spirit World (1984) is a classic image
of the mourning procession in a jazz funeral. Two grand marshals
center-scene rivet the eye: white gloves holding dark hats; the somber
dignity of their faces; the stately body language as they move beneath
arched flagpoles; the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club banner behind
them as the hearse advances. The dark glistening street seems like a
platform, while two long trombones jut in from lower left, conveying
anticipation in the sweeping space. The photograph bears the simple
title, "Zulu Funeral, 1977."

Who are the men in the picture? Smith gazes at them, and shakes his
head. The names won't come. "The Olympia Brass Band was playing.
That's about it for this one," he says.

On another wall hangs a framed photograph of Fats Domino's hands
playing piano, with a ring sporting a huge cluster of diamonds.
Pictures of Mardi Gras Indians occupy more wall space. Here is a
photograph of an ancient desert castle in Mali. There, one of James
Booker at piano with a star-emblazoned patch over his eye and a madcap

I ask Smith about his childhood memories.

He smiles. "I grew up in New Orleans, sin city," he says. "I used to
hang out at Norma Wallace's (brothel) in the French Quarter. ... When
I first went there I was too young. They had standards. I think you
had to be 18. They checked your ID. For my eighteenth birthday I went
there, treated by my friends."

Put another way, Smith's adolescence was marked by revolt. The middle
of three sons, he grew up in a wealthy household and was packed off to
a New England prep school in the eighth grade. Although he played
football in high school, the streak of rebellion kept widening. His
father, a former Navy officer, had hopes of Mike finding a career in
the military. In 1958, he entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

"I was a renegade," recalls Smith of his military school days. "There
were no liberties. It was too close-minded for me. By nature I'm

The academy brass agreed that his future lay elsewhere, and by mutual
consent he left the academy. He entered Tulane University and became
an English major.

Smith's interest in photography sparked in his early 20s. His primary
influences were Matt Heron, a freelance photographer who lived near
the Tulane campus, and Clarence John Laughlin, the internationally
renowned photographer and author of Ghosts Along the Mississippi.
Laughlin was in the autumn of his life, a romantic whose images of
cemeteries, plantation houses and off-the-trail neighborhoods showed a
strong surrealist stamp.

"Some of my work follows in his footsteps, though I don't think you'd
find Clarence in Dorothy's Medallion photographing Big Linda," muses
Smith, speaking of the quirky little club on Orleans Avenue where
Walter "Wolfman" Washington got his start, perhaps most famous for the
large women who danced inside cages with boa constrictors.

"I thought it wonderful that they did these things and did what they
felt like doing," says Smith of the scene at Dorothy's.

Fats Houston Funeral 1981
Matt Heron, who was closer to Mike in age, held informal gatherings
where photographers discussed their work and that of others. This was
in the early 1970s, when photography was just becoming recognized as
an art form.

When Heron left New Orleans, he recommended Smith to Black Star, the
agency in New York that matches photographers with commercial and news
clients on an as-need basis. The agency split the fee 50/50 with the
photographer. "I was with Black Star for about 15 years," says Smith.
"The jobs assigned through Black Star paid real well. I did work for
Exxon and Mobil, very substantial work."

The lucrative commercial work allowed Smith to undertake the cultural
explorations into pockets of the city that few visual artists had
examined. Two National Endowment for the Arts grants in the 1970s
provided sustained support for his early photographs of the Spiritual
churches. He visited dozens of churches over a period of many years.

Spirit World, which was originally published as a catalogue to an
exhibition of the church photographs sponsored by the Louisiana
Endowment for the Humanities, contains highly dramatic images of
musical life and African-American religious services. Interspersed
with the scenes of water immersions, choir members in soaring song and
preachers exuding spiritual mysteries, are Smith's earliest
photographs of jazz funerals.

In one image, taken during the 1969 funeral of clarinetist George
Lewis, the sadness and stoicism etched on the brows of the pallbearers
leaving the church have a timeless quality, as if the death of one
jazzman incorporates the sorrow felt for all members of the church who
have gone before.

That same year Smith photographed the funeral parade for the fabled
drummer Paul Barbarin. Two pictures in A Joyful Noise are from that
burial procession, said to have drawn 5000 people. "The music of the
old funerals was wonderful," Smith says wistfully. "Going to a jazz
funeral is like a total life experience. There was a respect for the
band -- you kept your distance.

Lightnin' Hopkins -- Jazz Fest (circa 1979)
"I remember a time in the last years when I was photographing, when
photographers would get in the way. I was documenting the intrusion of
the photographers at that point, in the late '80s and early '90s. I
know some second liners were showing off for the cameras and so it
introduced an artificial element. ... I wanted to preserve a record of
what the tradition went through and the intrusion on that tradition."

Whatever the extent of that record, the pictures for which Smith is
best known capture the poetic movements of second liners in club
parades and funerals in such a way as to suggest there were no
photographers present -- except the one who took the picture.

"There was a gradual increase in outsiders, tourists," Smith says of
the final years when he was shooting in the streets. "I'm not sure how
I feel about that. A beautiful tradition should be shared with
outsiders, but some tourists don't have the ability to truly
understand it. That's why I did Spirit World -- to help outsiders
understand the religious side of this city."

The book also was Smith's attempt to understand a religious
environment rooted as much in Christian fervor as the African
principle of spirit-summonings. "Spirit guides can be adopted from the
living world or the world beyond," he wrote in the text.
"Communication with one's spirit guides can be established either
through a medium or through prayer. In this way people who have shown
you the greatest truth and inspiration become an integral part of your
subconscious and can speak to you from within or from 'beyond.'
Through mediums one has access to the spirit world or the healing hand
of God."

Besides Spirit World and A Joyful Noise, Smith has published two books
about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a work titled
Mardi Gras Indians. There are photographs of famous musicians -- from
Fats and Fess to Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas, among many others --
in the Jazz Fest books and Joyful Noise. Yet a counter-theme to
celebrity runs through his work: the exaltation of ordinary people,
seed-carriers of a folk culture who remain anonymous to the larger

Reflecting on Larry Bannock and the late Percy Lewis, two of the Mardi
Gras Indian chiefs he has known, Smith says: "They come to mind as
very substantial citizens with a commitment to their culture and to
the city. Like the (Spiritual church) archbishops, they are leaders.
People have great respect for the culture and those who have found a
way to pass on that respect."

Baptism, Beauty of Holiness Spiritual Church 1975
As Smith discovered the thematic arc of his work, he read extensively
about music and mask-making traditions of cultures throughout the
Caribbean basin. He also found a forceful influence in Alan Lomax, the
musicologist and renowned folklorist who collaborated with Jelly Roll
Morton on his autobiography and wrote his own prize-winning memoir The
Land Where the Blues Began.

Lomax made many trips to New Orleans during his career. On one visit,
in the late 1980s, he was gathering material for a PBS documentary and
spent time with Smith, studying his photographs and sharing insights.
"I brought him to Wild Magnolias practices and to the Golden Eagles
practices. I showed him a little of the New Orleans underground," says
Smith. "Lomax was reaffirming things I already felt, respecting
different ways to express one's intent, one's spirit. Mardi Gras
Indians and Spiritual churches have deep respect for Native American
culture and express that in rites of the church and all kinds of ways."

As cultural chroniclers grow older, they often see changes in what
they have documented as being detrimental. Smith expresses a certain
pessimism about the style of younger second liners, whose unruliness
also bothers more than a few of the most seasoned jazzmen.

"There's a sense of selfishness that pervades modern street culture,"
Smith says. "I came in contact with a respect for the tradition as I
photographed funerals -- they don't have the same meaning any more."

And yet the evolving body language of the street dances also gives
Smith some hope. "I always tried to catch an attitude in the way
people were expressing themselves, or their other selves, their
nominally wilder selves. ... I think of myself as a historian and
documentarian. So my photography is a form of memory to share an event
with a larger audience."

The hard part, then, is his struggle to remember. "It's a loss," he
says stoically. "I can't put my fingers on all the dimensions of the

Healing Hands, Bishop H. Brooks at Infant Jesus of Prague Spiritual
Church 1975
Is it frightening?

He shakes his head. "It's just sad, not frightening. ... I don't know
quite how to put it. I can't help you. It has more to be do with the
ability to function so that I'm not sure what I'm forgetting."

He gazes at a photograph from the Paul Barbarin funeral, 32 years ago,
with trumpeter Scotty Hill prominently featured. "What I remember most
about that day are the sounds, a bagpipe as it mixed in with the other
instruments, and the improvisation. I don't know what happened to Noon
Johnson. I think I photographed his funeral."

How many funerals has he shot?


Smith is now working on a book called The Spirit of New Orleans. "I
call it my swan song," he says with a chuckle. "I've traveled a lot in
North America and South America and find New Orleans to be in a very
good place. That's kind of what the book is about, jazz expressions of
the city of New Orleans."

We turn back to the photograph of the Zulu jazz funeral. What story, I
ask, do you see in it?

"A jazz funeral is a celebration of entering a new world, one that
people don't know about, as they are trying to understand death. When
you talk about ceremonies of life and death, people can go off
half-cocked. I don't talk about these things very much. I haven't done
justice to what the event is."

"But it's a beautiful photograph," I counter.

Smith nods. "I think my pictures speak for themselves. I don't like
talking about them. I show people paying their respect for life and

"Do you miss photographing the events?"

"Yeah, I do." He pauses. "I don't know how to talk about that."

Revelation of Spirit: A Photographic Testament to New Orleans Culture
is the premier exhibit of The Photo Exchange, a new gallery directed
by local photographer David Richmond. The gallery's grand opening will
be 6 p.m. to midnight Saturday, Nov. 3, at 8208 Oak St. Signed and
numbered archival prints will be available. For more information, call

Recommended books on
New Orleans' music and culture

Spirit World: Patterns in the Expressive Folk
Culture of African-American New Orleans.
Smith is a marvelous photographer, renowned for his photographs of
local musicians and culture, particulary the local African-American
culture of New Orleans, unique in many ways and extremely rich. Here
in this fascinating and gorgeous book, Smith examines the black
spiritual churches of New Orleans and touches up on the culture of the
black "Mardi Gras" Indian tribes, which he covers in greater detail in
his next book.
by Michael P. Smith

Mardi Gras Indians.
Perhaps belonging in the photography section because of the stunning
beauty of Smith's color photographs, this is here because it's the
first book to thoroughly examine the fascinating culture of the black
Indians of New Orleans, often mistakenly called "Mardi Gras Indians",
one of the most unique expressions of African-American folk culture
still in existence. The Indians have to be seen to be believed; the
costumes will knock you out. If you're ever in New Orleans, try to see
them performing at Jazzfest, or before or during Mardi Gras.
by Michael P. Smith


A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans Music
by Michael P. Smith

New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History
by Michael P. Smith

Jazz Fest Memories
by Michael P. Smith & Allison Miner

New Orleans
by Bethany Ewald Bultman, Michael P. Smith, Richard Sexton (1994)

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