Louisiana music lost one of its most sensitive chroniclers when photographer and former OffBeat contributor Brian Ashley White, 64, passed away in May due to liver failure.
Many of White’s photographic subjects were also his friends: Terrance Simien, Ivan Neville, Charles Adcock, John Campbell. Although he lived in New Orleans for only a few years in the early 1990s, White created iconic images of local legends such as Earl King, Boozoo Chavis, Art Neville and Rusty Kershaw. He papered his apartment in New York with photographs of New Orleans musicians, along with voodoo flags and works by painter Francis Pavy, another Louisiana friend.
“It was a fascinating experience to be the subject of one of his shootings,” remembered Terrance Simien, who featured a White photograph on the cover of his second recording, There’s Room For Us All. “He was always so full of joy.”
“He connected with people in a way that let them show what he wanted them to show,” said White’s former wife and longtime friend Jenny Gorman. White was a perfectionist, Gorman recalled, never satisfied with seeing a subject from just one point of view. “It was fascinating to watch how, when he was looking to see how things are going to frame up, he’d move around like a boa constrictor, going back and forth.”
Nobody was more pleased with the results than the subjects themselves. Gorman credits Les Paul with encouraging White to photograph musicians. “He’s just about the only one who took a picture of me that I liked,” recalled Simien. And after White’s death, Ivan Neville posted his gratitude: “we had sum fun & wild times together … you took sum great pics of me & made look good when I wasn’t feelin so good.”
White, a native of Vancouver, British Columbia, took a circuitous route to New Orleans, leaving home at 17 and attending art school in Holland before moving to New York City. He began collaborating with writer Cree McCree, starting with a profile of John Campbell for Details magazine. “We only wrote about, and shot, artists who spoke to our souls,” McCree remembered.
White’s Louisiana photographs—Terrance Simien crowd surfing, the extended Boozoo Chavis family posing with plates of food, Charles Adcock duckwalking in front of House Rocker Record Shop, zydeco rubboard pioneer Cleveland Chenier holding his bottle-opener scrapers in weathered hands—capture all the warmth and musicality of a culture he semi-adopted as his own. “I think he always found Louisiana to be a place that people can go who didn’t really fit in anywhere else,” said Brian’s daughter, Esme Ashley-White.
More than anything, Terrance Simien remembered, White was devoted to his daughter Esme, currently in college and pursuing her interests in art and music. “That was my best Brian memory,” Simien said. “The joy and the love and how proud he was showed all over his body.”
“He put a lot of emphasis on not having any fear in what you do,” Esme Ashley-White recalled of her father. “I’m realizing now that he made my understanding of the world to be a magical place. I think that’s a really rare quality.”
Donations in Brian Ashley White’s name can be made to the Jazz Foundation of America, which assisted White in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. For more information visit jazzfoundation.org/memory_honor.