New Orleans photographer Polo Silk's photo book "Pop That Thang!!!" is out now. His gallery show runs through Sept. 3 at Antenna.
If he didn’t write it down, Polo Silk can usually tell when he took a photograph.
“The way I’m able to tell the years most of the time,” he says, “if I hadn’t gotten it marked, is by the tennis shoes.”
Sthaddeus Terrell — aka Polo Silk, “The Picture Man” — has spent three decades photographing New Orleans on the streets, in the club, and on the stage. What started as a late-night business to capture club goers in their latest outfits has made him the de facto photographer-of-record for New Orleans’ then-emerging rap and bounce scene, a vital record of Black New Orleans chronicled in the early days of a vastly influential cultural movement.
A showcase of his photos from those scenes are on display at Antenna (3718 St Claude Ave.) and inside a new book, Pop That Thang!!!,
a history of New Orleans rap, fashion and culture captured in rare, intimate portraits of the people who made it. A closing reception for the show begins 5 p.m. Sept. 2, and he'll discuss his work at Antenna's Signals show beginning at 6 p.m. Aug. 31 at Kermit's Treme Mother-in-Law Lounge.
Polo started photographing club scenes at Club Adidas in 1987 with a Polaroid camera.
“The guy who was taking pictures, we called him The Button Man,” he says. “He was doing all the big clubs — Whispers, Rumors. I noticed in the hood, though, that Uptown — Streamline, Big Man’s, Newton’s — they didn’t have nobody doing pictures in there.”
Polo's eyes lit up after learning the Button Man made $6,000 photographing a Zulu ball. "I said, ‘Wait, 6,000?’ I started thinking,” he says. “It was December 1990. I remember that night. The first thing I did was I ran home, got on the phone and called my cousin.”
His cousin Otis Spears — who named Silk “the Gordon Parks of the streets” — airbrushed elaborate backdrops for Polo’s portable photo studio. He caught his first break outside Big Man’s Lounge on Louisiana Avenue, where he set up on the neutral ground.
DJ Jimi — whose pivotal “Where They At” laid a foundation for bounce — only had permission to play rap and bounce at Big Man’s after midnight. “They probably thought it would run the old crowd away,” Polo says. “Everybody would sit outside the club and wait til about 12, then as soon as it was 12, and Jimi started something with that beat? Everybody was trying to get in there.”
Earning him the title “the ghetto Olan Mills,” Polo’s backdrops illustrated massive Champagne bottles, cars, p-popping dancers, rolls of cash — and Ralph Lauren Polo gear, Michael Hoban’s iconic 8-ball jacket, and Los Angeles Raiders gear popularized by N.W.A. Those on-trend twists brought him his first customers posing for photos to match their latest outfit. “8-ball jackets was hot then, everybody was wearing Polo again, N.W.A. was hot then, so everybody was wearing Raiders jackets,” he says. But first he’d roll out the beach scene, riffing off the packed street scene that looked like the cars- and crowds-filled strip along Lake Pontchartrain on the weekends.
“I had a little beach backdrop,” he says. “What I used to do was, I’d have my backdrop — the stand was so high, so I had a PVC tube and something to bolt it down on the neutral ground — we used to call it the Lakefront. On Friday and Saturday nights, it’d be so packed you’d have cars all over Claiborne [Avenue].”
Polo lured in crowds spilling into the streets or cruising in cars crawling outside clubs and along the neutral ground.
“It made it easier for me because everyone’s wearing a Raiders jacket or 8-ball jacket or Polo outfits. Boom, boom, boom,” he says. “I’d get it started off with the beach backdrop and get their picture. Then I’d just flip it. ‘Oh man, you got on an 8-ball jacket? I’ve
got an 8-ball jacket.’ So I’d flip it, then they’d spend again, because they’d wanna take a picture showing off their 8-ball jacket.”
With a Polaroid camera he named Chelsea (because, well, “Chelsea Clinton,” he says, laughing), Polo captured natural expressions — no direction necessary, with portraits glimpsing the personalities of the scene before the world had turned its ears and eyes to New Orleans rap. (He leaves Chelsea at home now; he also shoots with a Canon Rebel and D80.)
“A lot of my shots, they’re a lot more intimate. … Just you up there doing your thing, there’s more of an effect to it,” he says. “Most of the rappers, before they was rapping, they was clubbing, so I developed a bond and relationship, so it was never really hard to get a photograph.”
Polo also released music, putting out his brother Lil Ham’s 1991 single “Fuck a Ho!” on his Strugglin-N-Strivin Records, and was instrumental in getting records into the hands of club DJs and promoters.
“Most of these guys were friends of mine. We’d ride to the gigs, or I’d pick them up for a gig,” he says. “I was able to tell them, ‘Look, you got your record out, if it’s hot I’m gonna give it to the DJs,’ because I’d built up a relationship with the DJs after doing a lot of promotion work with Cash Money.”
Polo tagged along for gigs in Baton Rouge and around Louisiana, where clubs typically closed no later than 2 a.m., leaving enough time for a trip back to New Orleans where doors stayed open until 4 a.m. or later. “You could hit two country towns and still come down and do a third show in New Orleans,” he says.
At Club Detour on Martin Luther King Blvd., the DJ would announce Polo’s entrance after a night touring south Louisiana: “We got the Picture Man!”
“The DJ was in the back front side of the club and I was on the side of the bar towards the back, trying to get people back to where I’m at,” he says. “Once it got known I was there — and Detour used to roll until 5 in the morning, so if I went out of town with Cash Money or one of these other groups for a concert, 45 minutes or an hour, I knew I could make it back for a concert — when I came back, ‘Man, where you been at? We’ve been waiting out here! Picture Man is just now getting here.’ Just give me a second to set up. Get you a beer, let me get set up, and we’re ready to roll.”
Pop That Thang!!!
, released by Antenna, includes portraits of rap and bounce artists, from early bounce pioneers to Cash Money Records stars, as well as live performance shots and dozens of club portraits with Spears’ backdrops, all culled from Polo’s collection of thousands of photos.
“It was hard,” he says. “I do the second lines, I do the nightclubs, I do the concerts, jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indians. I was just trying to find what to do first. … I broke it down to this.”
As he sorted through his catalog, he kept returning to photos of the same group of women who had been friends since they were 7 years old and realized he had photographed them over more than a decade. With that, coupled with countless performance shots, portraits, and the same pose — women popping out their hip and resting a hand on it while smiling wide — an idea for the book came into focus.
“Once we had that, it took it to a whole different thing,” he says. “It made it a lot more fun.”
His gallery show spans large 35 mm prints, Polaroids, posters, concert and party fliers, and lifesize cutouts. There’s also a large frame covered in camouflage with “Free B.G.” stamped on the edge, made after the Cash Money rapper was imprisoned in 2014 — Polo first passed it around a Lady Buckjumpers parade (led by Linda Tapp Porter, mother of late rapper Soulja Slim). “We’d take pictures and send them to him and let him know we hadn’t forgotten about him,” he says.
Chelsea, surrounded by a selection of Polaroids, is encased in glass at the center of the gallery.
“Sometimes when I look back I wonder how in the world did I do this,” he says. “Before camera phones came in, at one time i was doing 4, 5 clubs a week, I’d be in the club from 9 to 4, then still have to go to my day job. … How in the hell did I pull that off?”
Polo and his backdrops still set up at second lines and other events, or he’ll be out in the crowd, looking for a shot.
“I just go for it,” he says. “There’s so much going on. It’s hard to choose. There’s always something to do and something to shoot.”
Pop That Thang: Polo Silk
Open noon-5 p.m. daily through Sept. 3.
Antenna, 3718 St Claude Ave., (504) 298-3161
Antenna::Signals issue No. 6: Street Spirit
6 p.m.-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 31
Kermit's Treme Mother-In-Law Lounge, 1500 N. Claiborne Ave.