Friday, October 10, 2008

Remembering Mike

Posted By on Fri, Oct 10, 2008 at 10:59 PM

Guest blogger Jared Serigné remembers beloved New Orleans photographer Michael P. Smith, whose life will be celebrated tomorrow (Oct. 11) with a second-line followed by a musical memorial at Tipitinas. (See Kevin Allman’s earlier post for details.)

 

I never got to know the real Michael P. Smith. When I came into his life this summer, Alzheimer's had already taken over. He didn’t speak and Parkinson’s had limited him to a simple handshake.

 

Mike’s partner, Karen Snyder, hired my girlfriend, Annelies, to look after him and her 96-year-old-father so she could run a few errands on Saturday afternoons.

 

Stepping foot into their home feels like entering a sacred temple dedicated to the soul of New Orleans. Pictures of musicians, jazz funerals, cornerstones, and Mardi Gras Indians decorate the walls. “These are all pictures that Mike took at Jazz Fest,” Annelies tells me. I think to myself, “This man is a legend. He’s seen more than I ever will. He must be 10 feet tall with hands the size of baseball mitts.”

 

She brings me to where Mike sits hunched over at the kitchen table. He’s awfully thin, no more than a 120 pounds.

 

“How you doing Mr. Mike ?” I ask him. His tired eyes slowly look up and puts out his hand to shake mine. This is the same hand that snapped pictures of Irma Thomas, Ray Charles and Eric Clapton. I’m honored. I imagine in some way that I’ll absorb his powers. I want to ask him all about being on stage, all about his adventures with the Wild Tchoupitoulas and what it was like being Professor Longhair’s personal photographer. Instead, he slowly moves his attention back to his coloring book and continues where he left off.

 

“You can try to feed him in a little while, but he may not want to eat. Just make sure he has some liquid,” Karen tells us. You can feel the devotion in her voice.

 

Karen is a local hero in her own right. She’s directed documentaries on local culture and works at the Cabildo.

 

She leaves and we all sit down at the kitchen table to draw. Using one single crayon, Mike meticulously fills in the shapes of his picture. I start to sketch him. I wonder if he knows what I’m doing. What does he think of these kids being in his house? Do we have any right to be here? Do we know who he is?

 

The truth was that I’d just discovered him. That’s not to say that I hadn’t seen his work before. If you’ve seen any pictures of Jazz Fest from 1970 to 2003, chances are they’re Mike’s. I finally put a face with the work.

 

After a couple of hours, Karen returns. She lugs two handfuls of groceries up the steps. I can tell that she’s tired and that she didn’t ask for this, but we never do. I think about myself. Could I do that? Could I love someone as much as she loves this man? I look at Annelies and hope that I can.

 

When I get home, I dive right into Google, pulling up whatever I can find on Mike. “Look at this one of Lightnin’ Hopkins and this one has Buddy Guy and Junior Wells in 1983,” I yell to Annelies. It becomes clear to me that I’ve stumbled on a genius. If I could just hear his stories. Please give me just one.

 

I was fortunate enough to know a couple of Mike’s friends. “He was a troublemaker,” Michelle Benoit tells me under a big grin. Something tells me that was the way everyone knew him. The photographer who would stop at nothing to do what he loved. 

 

Another friend, Sarra-Marie Gould, relates her memories of Mike: “You’d be some place where there was something going on and all these people around having a good time, and you’d look up and there’s Mike, hanging from a rafter somewhere, trying to get

the best shot.” He sounds like my kind of guy.

 

For the next couple of months I’d visit the house at least once a week. I was having trouble finding work, and Karen offered me a job working in their yard. I’ll never forget the favor. During that time, Mike’s condition got worse, until he passed away. I called Karen the evening he died, and she told me the news. “It was very calm and very peaceful,” she says. “It was a beautiful day outside.”

 

I can’t help but worry about her; she still has her Dad to take care of. I tell myself that her love will do the work. She’s made it this far. That’s what you do, right?

 

I remember the last time I saw Mike. It was the Tuesday before he passed away. I cautiously entered the room where he lay in bed. He looked helpless, but at rest, content with a life well spent. As a final testament to his undying love for New Orleans, a small radio next to his bed played WWOZ just loud enough to hear. I will never forget that moment. He loved this place and it loved him back. I hope that I can love it half as much as he did.

 

So I never got to know the real Mike Smith, but his last days offered me a chance to get to know the love that surrounded him. His love for his art form and the constant pursuit he gave it. His love for New Orleans and his devotion to capturing its essence. The community’s love for him that will leave big grins on their faces for years to come. And a love between two people that no disease or circumstance could ever take away.

 

See you at the Second Line Mr. Mike.

 

Mike’s work can be seen at http://www.michaelpsmithphotography.com.

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