As the Mardi Gras Indians emerge from the club that is their dressing room, other unsuited Indians play and sing them out. For the unsuited Indians it is a tradition and a show of respect. They play as if their lives depend on it.
For me, it’s how things start. Loud. Noisy. Joyful.
I made this picture with a 16mm lens. Very wide. Very close. That’s how I like to work. In the middle of things. The Indians allow me to work like that because I show them the proper respect. If I can yell out loud enough, I thank them. If not, I give them a thumbs up and a nod of my head. I give somebody with pockets my business card. For them, my pictures are free.
On this night I was trapped between these guys, the Indians who were coming out on the street and the crowd trying to get close to either take pictures, or say hello to their friends and neighbor Indians. It was a good place to be trapped. All I needed to do was turn around because pictures were everywhere.
The picture. I call it “The One,” because every now and then I make a picture good enough to be my yearly signature picture. Obviously, I can’t predict the future. I may make other even better pictures as the year rolls on. Even though I certainly will try, I doubt it will happen. This was my magic moment.
To me, this picture says everything about the street, traditions and rituals. But, as I’ve learned in the past, you have to be there. If I show it to you in some place where our traditions aren’t well-known, you’d likely say something like, “Yeah, that’s nice,” and move on to another picture. I get it and it never bothers me.
The technical stats for those of you who want to know, are f 5.6 exposed for around 1/15th of a second using all the axis stabilization possible. Auto ISO. No flash. All available light. I was lucky, they were singing in a pool of light.
That’s what this was. A little lagniappe. That’s a Louisiana French word that means a little gift. Or, a little bit more.
This picture is the result of a little more.
I was meeting some friends. We decided to meet at St. Louis Cathedral since it is the major landmark of The French Quarter. It was hot, so I suggested we meet inside since the cathedral is always cool. When I arrived, all these students from different groups were lined up, getting ready to make their way to the altar. Eventually, they arranged themselves in some formation. Short to tall. Or, maybe by grade. Then they started to rehearse. Sometimes they were a little off. So their director switched an octave around and they sang. Almost like angels.
Meeting in the cathedral was the main event for us. The choir was lagniappe.
From my photographer’s point of view this is a prefect illustration of getting outside to take pictures. If you are having a block — as I was for a while — go outside. Look around. Go some place. I’m sure the pictures will find you.
I decided. Just now, to start doing an occasional series called, “Life on the Street.”
Here’s what happened. When I was chasing storm light, I ran into this guy. There was a garbage can lying in the middle of the street just about where I was going to stop to photograph some falling down building, which is really a big rental room for weddings and reunions and like that. It’s camouflaged. A lot of people in The Lower Garden District do that. The garbage can was starting to impede traffic so I thought I’d do the right thing and move it to the sidewalk.
This guy came rolling up on a bicycle and tossed it in my general direction. This very guy. The one in the pictures. So, I put it on the curb. Then he started hustling me. Not to worry, all is good in this little tale of mine. First, he did gymnastics. The top picture is just one in about five backward flips. It’s hard to tell in my pictures, but this guy is smallish, wiry and very, very well muscled.
Then, he started singing. To use a technical musical term, he has a helluva a voice. Then he did his hustling thing. He didn’t have to. Not only did he work pretty hard, but he let me photograph him and we talked for a while. But, but, but… I don’t carry much cash when I’m roaming around. I had a ten-dollar bill and two singles. I kept the two singles.
I’m really starting to dislike that term. They are funerals. They are about death. They are about mourning. They are about understanding that all things must pass. And, that we in New Orleans accept that death as part of life. We mourn. We celebrate.
If you are visiting and want to see our culture for real — not in the “neon zone” on Bourbon Street — you might consider yourself lucky if you learn about a jazz funeral and attend. Most are fairly small and uncrowded. For the most part they are in public view. On the street. If you decide to go inside, please remember to dress appropriately. I cringe when I see some guy in shorts, a flowered shirt and flip-flops wandering around sticking a camera in front of mourners faces during the formal ceremony.
Yesterday’s funeral was not small. Instead, it was huge. I’ll tell you why. It’s going to be a little hard so bear with me if I ramble around. Just know that almost every tribe, gang, club and krewe was represented.
This wasn’t one funeral. It was two. It probably should have been three. One day about a week or so ago, there was a shooting. A killing. That’s common in this city. Hell, there were four shootings and five victims on Christmas Day. One of those people died.
The shooting I’m talking about took three lives. Twenty bullets were fired. It was no drive by shooting. It was a hit. The shooter or shooters killed a young man, Big Chief Lionel Delpit III. He was 25 years old. His companion, Breon Stewart, was also killed. She was 23. That’s sad enough. But, their unborn child, Lionel Delpit IV was killed in utero. He would have been born last week or early this week.
I’m not exactly sure what more to say.
So, I’ll tell you about what I saw, heard and what the day felt like.
Everybody was exceptionally kind. The above picture of the unsuited and unmasked big chiefs was made because they pulled me into their circle. We don’t all know each other, but we recognize each other from the street. And, I have a helluva rhythm when they start playing and singing. I believe you can’t shoot pictures without really feeling what you are seeing.
“What I saw” is a weird phrase. You would think that if I saw it, you will see it. Not yesterday. The crowd was huge. I couldn’t physically drift from one place to another like I usually do. So, sometimes I saw things that I couldn’t photograph. I saw a lot of sadness. The way that a jazz funeral usually works is that it starts with a dirge and ends in celebration. Not so much yesterday. Sure. There were hugs, smiles and even a little laughter as Uptown indians found their friends in Downtown tribes. I saw a friend of mine who is a Baby Doll (the female counterpart to an indian). She smiled at me through her tears. I could have taken that picture. I didn’t. That was our moment.
Then there was the weather. The temperature broke all sort of records. It was 83 yesterday in Treme. It was steamy. Very humid. When the sun broke through the clouds, it was downright hot. And, when it didn’t, rain fell lightly. It was December 26th, but it felt like early summer.
It felt right.
This picture is just plain old hard to look at. He was the very first Mardi Gras Indian I photographed when I returned to New Orleans after my time in New Mexico. If you go to my Twitter feed and actually look at my page, you’ll see him as the background image. I was going to change that with the turn of the year. I don’t think that I will.
I was going to show these pictures to you one or two at a time like I usually do. I can’t this week. There is a big second line today. It’s the 20th Anniversary of The Lady & Men Rollers. I want to show you a few of those pictures on Monday. Then, like just about everybody else, I want to show you my best pictures of the year. There are three days of that. The culture. Stuff falling down. And, stuff I just saw. 12 pictures each day. 36. That’s pretty good year if you consider that Ansel Adams said that if you took ten great pictures in a year then you had an exceptional year. I doubt my year was as good as that. But, still…
And, finally. This year ends as it started. With a big, huge jazz funeral. The first one was for Bo Dollis. He lived a life. A good life. He brought the music of the Mardi Gras Indians to the world. The last one, as I wrote, was for two young people. And, one yet to be born. They never had a chance.
This is about pre-parade. About getting ready. About dancing in the street. About singing. About photographing. Yep. Me and 10,000 cameras.
Most of these pictures are pretty obvious except maybe for the top picture. She’s another one. I don’t know her name. We seem to appear at the same events. We are happy to see each other. And, she in not an Indian, Baby Doll, or social club member. She’s “just” taking part. I like her smile. So she leads it off.
The rest of the pictures.
In order… Baby Dolls and Indian priness dancing. Feeling like a press conference, encircled by photographers and spectators. Big Chief Juan Pardo, pre-parade. Young drummer getting ready to set the beat. Second Chief of the Wild Magnolias. More dancing in the streets.
Hmmm…. I made too many pictures. Somewhere near 1,500 exposures in four hours. In my defense, you never know what you’re going to get when you’re being jostled around. When you are walking backwards. When the scene in front of you changes in milliseconds. When people are popping into the frame from anywhere. That’s why there are too many pictures.
Luckily, my ratio of keepers of junk was pretty good. So. I’m going to bore you with them for most of the week.
I’ll start with portraits because faces interest me the most. Yeah. Yeah. I know. Everybody wants to see the Mardi Gras Indians colorful suits. The new 2015 models. The ones they worked on all year.
Singing looks like yelling. He’s singing. How do I know? I was there. How do you know? Look at those nicely lined up trumpets — and one trombone — in the background. Look at all those happy, but cold people, in the background. Singing.
I am sorry to say that I don’t know this man’s name. But, I do know his masking style. It has been around for at least and a half years. The first time I saw it, and him, was at Uncle Lionel’s massive jazz funeral. If you scroll back… waaaaaaaaay back. To July – August 2012, you can see it. I remember that day well. I was in Austin, Texas. I left in the morning for New Orleans and managed to get back in time for our evening event. Nobody, and I do mean nobody, believed that I could do it. But, I did it. That’s why God invented airlines.
The picture. Aside from recognizing the man and the mask, I like this image because the color just pops out from all of that muted background color. It didn’t seem all the cold. But even when the temperatures are in the mid 50s, it feels cold because the humidity just doesn’t disappear. It sort of lays there in a cold, wet blanket.
I changed my mind. I am publishing a few pictures from the first second line parade of the new season. This is the Young Men Olympian Junior Benevolent Association’s 130th Anniversary Parade. What do they do? As the president said, “These parades are just a little fun. Our real work is caring for our sick and burying our dead.”
1884. That’s when they started walking. Long time. Back then, this place was still “a land of strange design.” That’s one way of putting it. A lyrical way. In many ways, it’s been one long walk.
This is my third year of photographing this parade. For me, it was the first in a long string of parades. I photographed a couple of them way in the past, but not with such intent. My working desire hasn’t diminished. But, the final product changed. The images live here, on hard drives and in my various stock libraries. Friends say, “Oh, make a book.” I would. I’ve done that before. It’s a huge amount of work. Then, there is marketing and distribution. And, as we know with other arts — like music — big projects are pretty much dead. Book sales, like album sales have dropped through the basement floor into the sub-basement and even deeper. Besides not wanting to pay for the work, the viewer or listener only wants the best. Whatever the best is to them. Or, whatever they are told the best might happen to be.
Because you keep asking. I might do this. I’ll make a Blurb Book. In most ways, you can’t tell them from a book produced by a big publisher and printed on a big commercial press. Sometimes, they are better quality. I could make it about 40 pages. Hard cover. Soft cover. As you want. Here’s the thing, books printed on demand are a little expensive. It might cost $30 or $40. Maybe less. Most of that is printing, binding and finishing costs. Blurb’s, not mine. I get paid nothing to select the pictures, write the copy, design the books and look after all the details. In case you are wondering, I’ll make about 10 to 15% of the retail price if I’m lucky.
Will you buy my Blurb Book?
The pictures. I started out trying to experiment. But, you really can’t plan anything with second lines parades. They start late. They start on time. They get cancelled with two drops of rain in the air. Or, they just keep gong in a sideways downpour. The paraders arrive on time. Or, late. The trumpet player in the middle picture — you’ve seen him in the past — was playing his notes as he was walking across a lot, through the crowd and as he took his place in the band. These parades are important. To the neighborhood. As a cultural statement. But, they are very loosely organized in a New Orleans way.
A couple of things are constants. There is always an opening prayer. There is always music. And now, everybody takes pictures.
A Jazz funeral. If you’re ever in New Orleans and you are lucky enough to see one, be sure to remember one thing. It may by big, bright and bold. But, somebody passed. For all the wonderful music, all the joyous noise and the well and brightly dressed participants… Somebody is sad. Somebody’s loved one passed. He ain’t der no mo’. Not coming back.
I doubt most of New Orleans knew about this one. A trumpet player called Porgy Jones passed. Although the procession took place in Treme, it was just a little neighborhood thing. The weatherman said there would be some rain. Some rain. As we started to walk, the skies opened up. Oh, it rained, alright. Over, under sideways, down. That didn’t stop us. Despite the original tenor of this parade, life goes on. The weather won’t stop us. It hasn’t before…
The pictures. Just four sketches of what I witnessed. I think that’s why I do it. I don’t need to stand out in the heat. In the humidity. In the pouring rain. We don’t have snow (much) so I get a pass on that. I do it to bear witness. I do it because I still believe the work is the prayer. I believe I’m paying my respects by working.