A Legend Is Gone



New Orleans has lost one of its most talented visual artists and a dedicated archivist of the city’s culture with the death of photographer Michael P. Smith. He died at his home last Friday of diseases of his nervous system. He was 71.


Smith was a lifelong New Orleans resident, but his photographs of the city’s cultural life — including musicians, jazz funerals, the Mardi Gras Indians, the city’s spiritual churches, New Orleans folklife and annual Jazz and Heritage Festivals — have been admired around the world.


His images hang in the Biliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Smitsonian Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and several local museums. He has lectured about his work in Germany, the Netherlands and many other places, and he has published several books of his photographs: 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.


Much of his success was based on his love of the city and his untarnished artist’s eye.“Many photographers have captured lasting images of the culture,” Jason Berry wrote in a 2001 cover story in Gambit Weekly. “Smith has created a personal iconography, a vision of New Orleans shaped by its streets, sacred spaces and human rhythms.”


Smith’s love of New Orleans folklife was awakened in the 1960s when he went to work as a photographer for Tulane University’s jazz archive. His documentation of the city’s culture had a vibrancy and detail that consistently made his photographs iconic. He shared many of his images with the public through the years, including many that were published in Gambit Weekly of musicians, Indians and events around the city.


During his career, Smith amassed more than a half-million negatives, but not all of them were developed because of cost. The Historic New Orleans Collection (HNOC) last year purchased Smith’s archives of some 2,000 rolls of black-and-white film, tens of thousands of color slides, more than 500 large-format negatives, several hundred prints, a couple of hundred audiotapes, correspondence, silkscreens of posters and more, says HNOC Marketing Manager Teresa Devlin.


The Collection currently has Smith’s materials in its archives and the public has access to them, but they are not on display. That will change next year.


“We have been planning an exhibition that will open in March (2009),” Devlin says. “We’re doing a joint project with the CAC, and both institutions will be displaying his work. This is a project we have had in the works for a long time. We’re very committed to this project.”


The specifics of the two exhibits are still being worked out, but Devlin says the HNOC is happy to share Smith’s work with the public. 


“It’s just an enormous collection,” she says. “We have 35 years worth of his work, from 1965 to 2000.” Smith retired in 2004.


In 2002, Smith received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities. Two years later, 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. In 2005, he was the first photographer to receive the Delgado Society Award from the New Orleans Museum of Art.


The photographer is survived by two daughters, Leslie Blackshear Smith of New Orleans and Jan Lamberton Smith of California; his brother, Joseph Byrd Hatchitt Smith of Washington; and two grandchildren. Funeral arrangements have not been announced.

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