Most photographers stand in front of the stages of music festivals. Zack Smith’s favorite perspective is behind the scenes.
From 2001 to 2016, Smith, a commercial photographer by profession, orchestrated behind-the-scenes photo ops at festivals in New Orleans and southwest Louisiana. Using large format film cameras and makeshift studios, he has taken hundreds of portraits of musicians.
The project, said Smith, was guided by the question, “How do I create a quiet space in chaos?” I wanted to create a document on where we are as a culture and as a people, and where the musicians are.
About seventy of his behind-the-scenes images are featured in “Exit Stage Right: Zack Smith’s Festival Portraits,” a new exhibit at the New Orleans Jazz Museum inside the Old US Mint which opened over the weekend. last and should run at least until spring.
Although his work has been exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art, this is the first large-scale exhibition dedicated to Smith’s portraits of musicians.
Separate rooms on the second floor of the Old US Mint feature behind-the-scenes portraits of the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience and Chaz Fest. Two additional rooms present portraits of the Ponderosa Stomp, the Acadian and Creole Festivals, Geronimo Fest and elsewhere.
In each room, clusters of large prints, in color or black and white, are mounted on the walls, mostly without the white carpet and black frames of traditional photography exhibits.
“The feeling you get is that you’re surrounded by people right now,” Smith said. “I am happy with the result. “
A native of Lafayette, Smith landed in New Orleans in 2000 after a stint at LSU. By then he had found his calling: taking photos and telling stories.
At first, he noted, “you want to film everything – clouds, mushrooms, people.” By the time he arrived in New Orleans, he had focused on live music.
He transported his portfolio to local music clubs, introducing himself and his work. It quickly became a staple at Tipitina’s, House of Blues, and other venues, spending countless late nights clicking.
He made the acquaintance of the directors of Superfly Presents, the production company that began to organize nightly concerts during Mardi Gras. When Superfly kicked off the great Bonnaroo, Tennessee Music Festival in 2002, Smith was hired to film the festival.
He has also toured for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the French Quarter Festival, while creating branding campaigns for commercial companies and running photography workshops.
During Jazz Fest 2001, he hung a sheet on a tree outside a friend’s house near the rue Sauvage entrance to the Parc des Expositions and asked passers-by to stop for a photo.
This was the genesis of his festival portrait project. Taking portraits of musicians behind the scenes has replaced photographing them on stage.
“My interest has evolved,” Smith said. “I was less of an observer of music and more of a portrait maker.”
His backstage photo booth was a regular feature of Chaz Fest, the spring festival held in the Ninth Ward by local performers not invited to the Jazz Fest.
For several years at Voodoo Fest in City Park, he took to the stage organized by Preservation Hall. Weeks before the festival, he contacted the groups that were to perform on this stage, inviting them to pose before or after their performances.
Smith is also a musician; he has been a drummer for local indie rock band Rotary Downs since 2003. For several years he both performed with Rotary Downs on Voodoo and did portraits. The band also performed late night gigs throughout the Voodoo weekend.
“These were really, really tough years,” Smith said. “Not a lot of sleep.”
Designing and building the studio behind the scenes, renting a trailer to transport it to the festival site, then spending several days taking the photos – it was a painstaking process.
“When you’re out there it’s supposed to be cold,” Smith said. “But it’s a lot to make each of these events happen.”
After a few years, musicians began to search for Smith and his photo booth. More and more people have asked her to take their photos before the concert, so that they don’t look sweaty.
“I challenged myself to make sure that when I was in the same place two or three years in a row, people would get excited, ‘Are you going to be here again? “”
Fifty years ago, Meters guitarist Leo Nocentelli recorded 10 low key songs for a solo album. He finally moved on and forgot his y…
While filming Bonnaroo’s first festivals for Superfly, he watched acclaimed rock photographer Danny Clinch work, as Clinch ran his own elaborate photo studio behind the scenes at Bonnaroo. Like Smith, Clinch is a photographer / musician. So when Clinch’s Tangiers Blues Band performed at Voodoo Fest one year ago, Smith portrayed them – a moment on repeat.
A few years ago, Smith approached New Orleans Jazz Museum curator of music, David Kunian, about the possibility of mounting an exhibit at the museum. Kunian was familiar with Smith’s festival photography project: as the host of the Chaz Fest, Kunian had been photographed several times by Smith.
The Jazz Museum certainly supports musical photography. “Great-ish Hits,” an exhibition of the music-themed work of veteran New Orleans photographer Rick Olivier, has been open since September 2020.
Kunian helps sort through hundreds of photos of Smith to organize “Exit Stage Right”. Its opening has been delayed twice due to COVID.
“It hasn’t been without a lot of stops and starts,” Smith said. “Where we are right now (with the pandemic), you have to keep planning and working as hard as you can for what you love, but know that anything can go away. There is nothing for sure. The fact that things are on the walls makes me feel better.
Her last behind-the-scenes portrait shoot to date was at Chaz Fest 2016. This December, her daughter was born; he now also has a baby boy.
Parenthood has consumed the free time he once spent planning, building and staffing his festival photo ops.
“I watch the world change through my children,” he said. “This is where I want to be right now.”
The New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Avenue, is open Tuesday through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $ 8 for adults, $ 6 for students, seniors, and serving military personnel.
If the Recording Academy invites you to help announce its Grammy nominees, there’s a good chance you will win at least one of those nominations.