Monday, December 26, 2011

Photographer Michael P. Smith: Preservationist of New Orleans' Cultural Wetlands

Michael Smith found himself in his usual spot--in the thick of the action--when he shot this amazing jam session of Roosevelt Sykes, B.B. King, Bukka White, George Porter Jr. and Professor Longhair at the 1973 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest.

This profile of New Orleans cultural historian and photographer Michael P. Smith was originally published in 2004 in Beat Street, a New Orleans literary magazine now out of print. By that time, Smith had slipped into semi-retirement by then as he began to succumb to the effects of Parkinson’s and possibly Alzheimer’s diseases.

Smith passed in 2008 and left behind a legacy that represents one of the Crescent City’s most magnificent treasures. Smith’s prints, negatives and other archival material was acquired by the Historic New Orleans Collection in 2007 where it is being preserved for future generations. His photographs also are in the permanent collections of the Bibliotheque National in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.

By Karl Bremer

New Orleans photographer David Richmond calls Michael P. Smith “the last true great undiscovered photojournalist of the 20th century,” and places him in the pantheon of such giants as W. Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange and Henri Cartier-Bresson.

Jeff Rosenheim, a former assistant of Smith’s in the early ‘80s who is now associate curator of photography for the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, asserts unequivocally that “Mike Smith’s life’s work should be preserved in perpetuity in New Orleans for the study of the culture of New Orleans in the last third of the 20th century.”

New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest Producer Quint Davis calls Smith “one of the great documenters and great depicters of a unique aspect of American culture. Mike is not just documenting, he’s creating great art.”

But it’s the words of Larry Bannock, Big Chief of the Golden Star Hunters, that would be most likely to bring a smile to Smith’s face.

“Mike Smith wasn’t a cultural pirate,” Bannock says. “He gave back.”

Bannock’s speaking of Smith in the past tense reflects the bittersweet fact that Smith hasn’t been a fixture out on the street for the past couple of years, capturing the pulse and spirit of New Orleans’ mesmerizing subcultures of Mardi Gras Indian practices, social and pleasure clubs, second-line parades and spiritual churches. His battle with Parkinson’s and possibly Alzheimer’s diseases has kept him from pursuing the mission that at once has been Smith’s vocation and avocation in life: to preserve on film the living, breathing, organic, cultural wetlands known as New Orleans.

“There’s a popular misconception around town that Mike is, like, gone,” says New Orleans photographer Bob Compton. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth. There’s still light in those blue eyes.”

There’s also a lot more information behind those blue eyes that Smith is frantically trying to download into his latest book, In theSpirit: The Photography of Michael P. Smith from the Historic New Orleans Collection, before it slips away. (The book was published in 2009. View an accompanying video here. ) Smith also has coauthored a book with University of Munich professor Berndt Ostendorf on New Orleans jazz funerals that is essentially complete but remains unpublished.

While the subject of Michael Smith’s physical and mental health has been of concern to many in recent months, the health and preservation of his legacy—and his monumental archives—has become of paramount importance as well.

“The value of this life that Michael has led is enormous, and it would be a shame to let it slip through New Orleans’ hands like so many other things,” declares Rosenheim.

Rosenheim was 22 years old when he moved to New Orleans in 1983 and went to work for the Louisiana State Museum. Smith’s first book, Spirit World, a captivating look at spiritual churches, Mardi Gras Indians and other aspects of African-American New Orleans culture, had just been published, and planning for a related exhibition of his work was underway.

“I had the pleasure of being involved in his exhibition at the Louisiana State Museum,” recalls Rosenheim. “I had a lot of experience working with archives of both living and deceased photographers. And I could recognize that Michael was not just a local photographer, but a local photographer who was connected to some of the best aspects of New Orleans culture. Michael not only had a remarkable commitment to his subjects but he seemed to be blessed with being at the right place at the right time. … He did some very innovative things, and he just ‘had it.’”

Rosenheim worked in the darkroom with Smith to put together two duplicate sets of prints from the exhibition for a traveling U.S. Information Agency show. “One would travel to the Caribbean—the Black Caribbean—and the other would go to Africa. It traveled for years and years. I used to get photographs from people who saw this exhibit all over the world.”

The cross-cultural appeal of the exhibit was remarkable, says Rosenheim. “Music culture is an international language and so is photography, and they both come together perfectly in Michael Smith.”

Besides documenting New Orleans culture with his camera, Rosenheim says Smith also maintains a vast audio archive of events he’s covered.

“He used to wire himself with sophisticated stereo equipment and record these parades and funerals.” Listening to those recordings as he worked in the darkroom with Smith’s powerful images “was like a kinetic experience.” The sounds of Smith working his way through the drum section of a jazz funeral, then the horns, shifting this way and that as he finessed his position for the maximum vantage point provide an aural context for these images that should be preserved as well, says Rosenheim.

Smith’s body of work reaches deep into New Orleans’ subcultures. But he is probably best known for his images from the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Fest. Smith is the only living photographer to have shot every Jazz Fest (until his last in 2004), according to Fest producer Quint Davis.
Leslie Smith, Michael's daughter,
helped guide her father's lens at the
2004 Jazz Fest.

Jazz Fest recognized Smith in 2004 with a showing in the Grandstand of his images printed in large format by David Richmond, and 50-60 of his images reproduced, mounted on boards and placed around the fairgrounds as close as possible to where they were originally shot. His work also is being exclusively featured in this year’s Jazz Fest program.

“We’re going to celebrate our 35th anniversary through the eyes of Mike Smith,” says Davis. “The whole infield is going to be a Mike Smith kaleidoscope of the festival.”

Since the beginning, Smith has been “Jazz Fest’s unofficial official photographer,” says Davis. “When you start to do a heritage festival that has New Orleans street culture in it, Mike comes along with it. Because in addition to being an artist and a photographer, he’s an intrinsic part of the culture himself. When we started doing this festival, he was part of New Orleans street culture. Then he became part of the festival culture. He was also unbelievably steadfast. He came every day, every year and went to every stage. Multiply that times 35 years.”

But Davis is quick to note, “Jazz Fest is really just a spoke in the wheel of Mike Smith’s work. We’re maybe a big spoke … Having created this great body of artistic work, he also has brought the images and the awareness of the culture to a lot of people. His photography of those things is a window to the world, and he helped to both popularize and legitimize those cultures.”
Larry Bannock: 'Mike Smith wasn't
a cultural pirate. He gave back.'

Says Larry Bannock: “He gave something to the people that a lot of guys don’t. Mike was one of the first whites to see one of these suits put together. Mike was there when you be sewing, and for years when I was making my Indian suits, Mike would give me books. Whenever Mike would go traveling and there was a book on Native American culture, he brought it back and said ‘Maybe you can use this.’

“A lot of times when I was doing patches, Mike would go out and take pictures of landscapes and color to make it come out right. There’re not a lot of photographers you could ask that of.”

Smith recognized the value of preserving the Mardi Gras Indian culture and he encouraged Bannock: “Don’t just do the beadwork. Know the culture, know the history, know why the blacks ran away and how the Native Americans helped them.” He also urged Bannock to become registered as a “master craftsman in black Mardi Gras Indian beadwork” with Louisiana Folklife.

“One of the people that made me a Big Chief was Mike Smith,” says Bannock. “When I first became a Chief, I was going through a problem, and I was talking to Mike about it.
And he said, ‘When you become a Chief, you become the center of attention. People say things about you—negative things. That’s all part of being a Chief.’ And the first thing he said was, ‘Buy your own equipment.’ Everything I needed to make a suit, Mike said that’s what I need. When you got your own, nobody can come at you.

“Mike isn’t a 9-to-5 friend. He’s a 24-hour friend,” Bannock continues. “Whenever you called him, he was there. There’s a lot of people that’s on the street today because of Mike. Carpenters, contractors, when things were slow, Mike would help them get jobs. He wasn’t just a little white boy who came along and took all the pictures and made all the money. … When the testimony is given, they can say Mike gave back—he didn’t take away.”

Becoming a part of the culture he was documenting had its down sides, too, says Bannock. “Mike and Jules Kahn were taking pictures of second lines when it wasn’t popular. Mike Smith was run out of places, Mike Smith was harassed, the same thing we went through. But when Mike Smith went Uptown, he was protected, and a lot of people knew what he was about.”

David Richmond first knew Michael Smith in 1969, when he took Smith’s place as an assistant to local Black Star syndicate photographer Matt Heron. He ran into him periodically in the mid-70s, although they were never close friends.

“I had a little gallery in New Orleans in the 70s and that was the first real gallery showing of Mike’s work—the Spirit World stuff. But Mike didn’t hang out with that gallery group. He never spent any time being a dilettante photographer.  He was hanging out with people closer to the culture—Jerry Brock, Jason Berry, Jeff Hannusch.

“I really lost track of Mike for about 15 years,” Richmond continues. “Two years ago I started this exhibit space and went over to Mike’s place and said this can’t happen. There was nobody to really champion his work, and he certainly wasn’t going to do it anymore.”

Richmond selected about 30 images for an exhibit. “I started printing them bigger, and cleaner. And I just realized that I’d fallen in love with the images. His best pictures—they’re alive, they’re not two-dimensional. You don’t look at the pictures—they come out and knock you out, especially when you’re giving birth to something like that in the darkroom.”

And, Richmond observes, “I’ve come to the conclusion, in looking at the proof sheets of his stuff and working with the images, that Mike didn’t just take pictures, he received pictures. He just went out there and wrestled away until some spiritual force said ‘You’re gonna receive this one.’”

The Louisiana State Museum raised the bar for recognition of Smith’s work last year when it purchased 75 archival-quality prints for its collection. “These pictures are going to be the museum’s basis of the representation of African-American culture in New Orleans,” says Richmond.

Rosenheim says Smith’s entire collection—photography, recordings, notes—should find a permanent and appropriate home in New Orleans, perhaps the New Orleans Museum of Art or the Louisiana State Museum. “It should be there, in the city that created him and in the city that created the music and culture. I would urge any one of the museum directors in the city to preserve this archive in all its complexity and richness.”

The archiving of Smith’s work “is an ongoing process,” says Bob Compton. “The phrase ‘treasure trove’ does not do it justice. There must be 100,000 images in that Race Street building. It physically fills up five great big rooms in an old hotel-size house.”

Meanwhile, Smith races against time to finish In the Spirit, which his daughter, Leslie, describes as “an exploration of freedom rituals in New Orleans,” from jazz funerals to the underground gay Mardi Gras.

“He’s driven. He’s afraid of not remembering, so he writes and doesn’t sleep, but he’s got so much writing to do, and it’s a vicious cycle.”

Bannock hopes the recognition that’s due Smith happens soon.

“There’s an old saying in the black church,” he muses. “Give me my flowers while I’m alive.”

A second line parade was held at the Jazz Fest Fairgrounds in 2009 to commemorate Michael Smith and human jukebox guitarist Snooks Eaglin, who passed earlier that year.


Top photo: By Michael P. Smith
Bottom two photos: By Karl Bremer

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