Carnival Havana, Cuba, 1984.
Photo by Michael P. Smith © Historic New Orleans Collection
In the Spirit: The Photography of Michael P. Smith
Opening reception 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. Wed., March 11; through Sept. 13
The Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Gallery, 533 Royal St., 523-4662; www.hnoc.org
Through Michael P. Smith's eyes, an outdoor music festival became a shared religious experience, an ordinary place of worship a shadowy glimpse beyond the grave. The celebrated Metairie-born photographer, who died in September at age 71, receives a posthumous salute with "In the Spirit," a two-part, two-venue exhibition opening Wednesday at the Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Gallery. "Beyond the Music" features artifacts and 80-plus images culled from the HNOC's archive of Smith's work, purchased in 2007. "Twenty-Five Jazz Fests," a companion show assembled by Dan Cameron, opens in April at the Contemporary Arts Center.
"Michael's had many shows over the years, many books published," says Jude Solomon, associate curator for the HNOC. "People are very familiar with his work. So what we tried to do is pull out images that haven't been seen before. I would say probably 75 percent (of the exhibition) hasn't been displayed before."
Scanning original slides and negatives, Solomon and co-curator John H. Lawrence created 11-by-17-inch digital reproductions to accompany vintage prints from the collection's archive. The result is a rare, fresh pictorial retrospective of Smith's four-decade career, which spanned documenting Southern civil rights struggles in the 1960s, Santería customs in Santiago de Cuba and street rhythms in New Orleans' Seventh Ward.
Positioned on opposite ends of the expo are perhaps the most polarized of Smith's subjects. In a small back room, lit by the sounds of James Booker and Professor Longhair, hangs a mosaic-covered segment of the original bar from Tipitina's — co-founded by Smith and friends as a modest music venue in 1977 — alongside psychedelic concert posters and portraits of artists like Davell Crawford, Eddie Bo and Willie Tee performing giddily onstage. What greets visitors on a front wall at the gallery's entrance is unbridled emotion of a different sort: a dozen images selected from Smith's series "The Spirit World," capturing baptisms and healings in four New Orleans neighborhood churches. The scenes, voyeuristic to a degree of almost discomfiting visual eavesdropping, range from celebratory and uplifting to solemn and unsettling.
"He really sought out the unusual, and [the church service] was one thing I think he felt was really hidden from the public view," says Solomon, who first met Smith in the 1980s and considered him a close friend. "He became very familiar at these services, not really an outsider."
A common thread throughout the exhibition is the artistic connection Smith drew from those disparate interests. On closer inspection, the pained expressions on the faces of churchgoers being saved aren't so different from those of musicians proselytizing on the Tipitina's stage. An old torcedor carefully rolling a cigar could be plying his trade on a Santiago beachfront or on Decatur Street; a bygone Bruce Brice mural Smith shot in the Tremé mirrors one he found in Havana in 1984.
"Mike loved to photograph murals," Solomon says. "He had so many interests."