The stunning photograph is a cameo of Smith's poetic sensibility. For more than 30 years, Smith immersed himself in the world of social aid and pleasure club parades, jazz funerals and Spiritual churches. He made his lens a floating mirror on the costumes, rituals and musical moments that make the city such a magical place. Many photographers have captured lasting images of the culture; Smith has created a personal iconography, a vision of New Orleans shaped by its streets, sacred spaces and human rhythms.
Smith began taking pictures in 1966. By the late '70s, he was exhibiting his work in local galleries and outside the state; his work was appearing in museums by the early '80s. Since then, he has published five books with many exhibitions, and his photographs hang in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, The Bibliotech National of Paris, and the New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park. Smith has lectured about his work in Germany and the Netherlands, and in August he appeared on a panel at a Columbia University jazz conference that included an exhibition of his works.
At the very time Smith has reached the peak of his career, his life has undergone an unsettling change -- memory loss. He recovered from emergency heart surgery several years ago, but at 64 he now moves more slowly, taking medication for a nerve disorder similar to Parkinson's disease. He no longer frequents the parades and musical events where he was a fixture for many years. He keeps working, though, culling pictures for the next book, continuing the research and writing about the cultural dynamics reflected in his work.
His daughter, Leslie Smith, a jazz and pop singer, now works with a friend, Laura Hass, in archiving and maintaining his file of slides and negatives. They sell Mike's photographs at a booth at the Jazz and Heritage Festival, and manage the Web site for Smith's work (www.culturalicons.com).
Smith, who lives Uptown, keeps a large studio in an aging building just off Tchoupitoulas on Race street, directly across from the Saulet, a massive, upscale condominium-apartment complex that was being built when we met during the summer. The construction site shed a curtain of dust on the neighborhood, which lies a few blocks from the deserted St. Thomas housing project. The tiny strip of Race Street is a remnant of the 19th century city.
Smith sat comfortably amidst his collection of folk art and images of his own making. A huge reproduction of Professor Longhair, elbow-out with a hand on the hip, made the rhythm-and-bluesman seem a vibrant presence. Smith took many pictures of Fess (Henry Roeland Byrd) and was one of a dozen people who ponied up $1000 each in launching Tipitina's music club in 1977, in order to provide a home base for the musician. When Byrd died in 1980, Smith photographed the funeral.
"Fess was a perfect gentleman," says Smith. "One of the politest men I have known."
As Smith perused photographs -- by his own reckoning, he has taken a million of them -- he continued to reflect on his life.
A photograph from Smith's book Spirit World (1984) is a classic image of the mourning procession in a jazz funeral. Two grand marshals center-scene rivet the eye: white gloves holding dark hats; the somber dignity of their faces; the stately body language as they move beneath arched flagpoles; the Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club banner behind them as the hearse advances. The dark glistening street seems like a platform, while two long trombones jut in from lower left, conveying anticipation in the sweeping space. The photograph bears the simple title, "Zulu Funeral, 1977."
Who are the men in the picture? Smith gazes at them, and shakes his head. The names won't come. "The Olympia Brass Band was playing. That's about it for this one," he says.
On another wall hangs a framed photograph of Fats Domino's hands playing piano, with a ring sporting a huge cluster of diamonds. Pictures of Mardi Gras Indians occupy more wall space. Here is a photograph of an ancient desert castle in Mali. There, one of James Booker at piano with a star-emblazoned patch over his eye and a madcap smile.
I ask Smith about his childhood memories.
He smiles. "I grew up in New Orleans, sin city," he says. "I used to hang out at Norma Wallace's (brothel) in the French Quarter. ... When I first went there I was too young. They had standards. I think you had to be 18. They checked your ID. For my eighteenth birthday I went there, treated by my friends."
Put another way, Smith's adolescence was marked by revolt. The middle of three sons, he grew up in a wealthy household and was packed off to a New England prep school in the eighth grade. Although he played football in high school, the streak of rebellion kept widening. His father, a former Navy officer, had hopes of Mike finding a career in the military. In 1958, he entered the Naval Academy at Annapolis.
"I was a renegade," recalls Smith of his military school days. "There were no liberties. It was too close-minded for me. By nature I'm unruly."
The academy brass agreed that his future lay elsewhere, and by mutual consent he left the academy. He entered Tulane University and became an English major.
Smith's interest in photography sparked in his early 20s. His primary influences were Matt Heron, a freelance photographer who lived near the Tulane campus, and Clarence John Laughlin, the internationally renowned photographer and author of Ghosts Along the Mississippi. Laughlin was in the autumn of his life, a romantic whose images of cemeteries, plantation houses and off-the-trail neighborhoods showed a strong surrealist stamp.
"Some of my work follows in his footsteps, though I don't think you'd find Clarence in Dorothy's Medallion photographing Big Linda," muses Smith, speaking of the quirky little club on Orleans Avenue where Walter "Wolfman" Washington got his start, perhaps most famous for the large women who danced inside cages with boa constrictors.
"I thought it wonderful that they did these things and did what they felt like doing," says Smith of the scene at Dorothy's.
Matt Heron, who was closer to Mike in age, held informal gatherings where photographers discussed their work and that of others. This was in the early 1970s, when photography was just becoming recognized as an art form.
When Heron left New Orleans, he recommended Smith to Black Star, the agency in New York that matches photographers with commercial and news clients on an as-need basis. The agency split the fee 50/50 with the photographer. "I was with Black Star for about 15 years," says Smith. "The jobs assigned through Black Star paid real well. I did work for Exxon and Mobil, very substantial work."
The lucrative commercial work allowed Smith to undertake the cultural explorations into pockets of the city that few visual artists had examined. Two National Endowment for the Arts grants in the 1970s provided sustained support for his early photographs of the Spiritual churches. He visited dozens of churches over a period of many years.
Spirit World, which was originally published as a catalogue to an exhibition of the church photographs sponsored by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, contains highly dramatic images of musical life and African-American religious services. Interspersed with the scenes of water immersions, choir members in soaring song and preachers exuding spiritual mysteries, are Smith's earliest photographs of jazz funerals.
In one image, taken during the 1969 funeral of clarinetist George Lewis, the sadness and stoicism etched on the brows of the pallbearers leaving the church have a timeless quality, as if the death of one jazzman incorporates the sorrow felt for all members of the church who have gone before.
That same year Smith photographed the funeral parade for the fabled drummer Paul Barbarin. Two pictures in A Joyful Noise are from that burial procession, said to have drawn 5000 people. "The music of the old funerals was wonderful," Smith says wistfully. "Going to a jazz funeral is like a total life experience. There was a respect for the band -- you kept your distance.
"I remember a time in the last years when I was photographing, when photographers would get in the way. I was documenting the intrusion of the photographers at that point, in the late '80s and early '90s. I know some second liners were showing off for the cameras and so it introduced an artificial element. ... I wanted to preserve a record of what the tradition went through and the intrusion on that tradition."
Whatever the extent of that record, the pictures for which Smith is best known capture the poetic movements of second liners in club parades and funerals in such a way as to suggest there were no photographers present -- except the one who took the picture.
"There was a gradual increase in outsiders, tourists," Smith says of the final years when he was shooting in the streets. "I'm not sure how I feel about that. A beautiful tradition should be shared with outsiders, but some tourists don't have the ability to truly understand it. That's why I did Spirit World -- to help outsiders understand the religious side of this city."
The book also was Smith's attempt to understand a religious environment rooted as much in Christian fervor as the African principle of spirit-summonings. "Spirit guides can be adopted from the living world or the world beyond," he wrote in the text. "Communication with one's spirit guides can be established either through a medium or through prayer. In this way people who have shown you the greatest truth and inspiration become an integral part of your subconscious and can speak to you from within or from 'beyond.' Through mediums one has access to the spirit world or the healing hand of God."
Besides Spirit World and A Joyful Noise, Smith has published two books about the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival and a work titled Mardi Gras Indians. There are photographs of famous musicians -- from Fats and Fess to Aaron Neville and Irma Thomas, among many others -- in the Jazz Fest books and Joyful Noise. Yet a counter-theme to celebrity runs through his work: the exaltation of ordinary people, seed-carriers of a folk culture who remain anonymous to the larger world.
Reflecting on Larry Bannock and the late Percy Lewis, two of the Mardi Gras Indian chiefs he has known, Smith says: "They come to mind as very substantial citizens with a commitment to their culture and to the city. Like the (Spiritual church) archbishops, they are leaders. People have great respect for the culture and those who have found a way to pass on that respect."
As Smith discovered the thematic arc of his work, he read extensively about music and mask-making traditions of cultures throughout the Caribbean basin. He also found a forceful influence in Alan Lomax, the musicologist and renowned folklorist who collaborated with Jelly Roll Morton on his autobiography and wrote his own prize-winning memoir The Land Where the Blues Began.
Lomax made many trips to New Orleans during his career. On one visit, in the late 1980s, he was gathering material for a PBS documentary and spent time with Smith, studying his photographs and sharing insights. "I brought him to Wild Magnolias practices and to the Golden Eagles practices. I showed him a little of the New Orleans underground," says Smith. "Lomax was reaffirming things I already felt, respecting different ways to express one's intent, one's spirit. Mardi Gras Indians and Spiritual churches have deep respect for Native American culture and express that in rites of the church and all kinds of ways."
As cultural chroniclers grow older, they often see changes in what they have documented as being detrimental. Smith expresses a certain pessimism about the style of younger second liners, whose unruliness also bothers more than a few of the most seasoned jazzmen.
"There's a sense of selfishness that pervades modern street culture," Smith says. "I came in contact with a respect for the tradition as I photographed funerals -- they don't have the same meaning any more."
And yet the evolving body language of the street dances also gives Smith some hope. "I always tried to catch an attitude in the way people were expressing themselves, or their other selves, their nominally wilder selves. ... I think of myself as a historian and documentarian. So my photography is a form of memory to share an event with a larger audience."
The hard part, then, is his struggle to remember. "It's a loss," he says stoically. "I can't put my fingers on all the dimensions of the loss."
Is it frightening?
He shakes his head. "It's just sad, not frightening. ... I don't know quite how to put it. I can't help you. It has more to be do with the ability to function so that I'm not sure what I'm forgetting."
He gazes at a photograph from the Paul Barbarin funeral, 32 years ago, with trumpeter Scotty Hill prominently featured. "What I remember most about that day are the sounds, a bagpipe as it mixed in with the other instruments, and the improvisation. I don't know what happened to Noon Johnson. I think I photographed his funeral."
How many funerals has he shot?
Smith is now working on a book called The Spirit of New Orleans. "I call it my swan song," he says with a chuckle. "I've traveled a lot in North America and South America and find New Orleans to be in a very good place. That's kind of what the book is about, jazz expressions of the city of New Orleans."
We turn back to the photograph of the Zulu jazz funeral. What story, I ask, do you see in it?
"A jazz funeral is a celebration of entering a new world, one that people don't know about, as they are trying to understand death. When you talk about ceremonies of life and death, people can go off half-cocked. I don't talk about these things very much. I haven't done justice to what the event is."
"But it's a beautiful photograph," I counter.
Smith nods. "I think my pictures speak for themselves. I don't like talking about them. I show people paying their respect for life and death."
"Do you miss photographing the events?"
"Yeah, I do." He pauses. "I don't know how to talk about that."