Renowned New Orleans photographer Syndey Byrd passed away on October 2, after a long illness. She was 71 years old.
Syndey Byrd was born July 3, 1944 in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where she grew up. Syndey, a one-time Miss VFW of Hattiesburg, often said that aliens had dropped her off in Hattiesburg. She attended the University of Mississippi, earning a degree in art. After graduation, Syndey moved to New York where she worked as an interior designer for Lord & Taylor and Bloomingdale’s. Syndey said that she got her “design sense for arranging things for photos” from those jobs.
Syndey found her life’s direction when she met Ernst Haas, the pioneering Austrian photography master, in Aspen, Colorado. “I sold my stereo to get to
Aspen, where he was teaching a workshop,” Syndey said. “He taught me about composition and how to see light. He said, ‘I shoot light.’ I became his assistant and driver, because he didn’t know how to drive. We were friends ever since.”
Syndey came to New Orleans about 1970, where she found the place and the culture that matched her personality and her goals as a photographer. She spent the next 40 years chronicling the music and lifestyle of New Orleans, producing thousands of vivid color slides of the musicians, Mardi Gras parades, second line funerals, voodoo rituals, and the vast and varied culture of New Orleans. Her photos were used on album covers, in books and calendars, and were exhibited around the world.
“When I first started taking photos I was a cocktail waitress at the Blue Room in the Fairmont Hotel. The second show was always slow, so I took photos. It was great. Ella Fitzgerald, B.B. King and Tony Bennett played there.” Syndey then got a job as photographer for the Times-Picayune’s “Social Scene,” which was her introduction to the society balls, to Rex and Proteus, and to the colorful and at-times-bizarre characters behind the Carnival masks.
Syndey was as much at home with the Mardi Gras Indians and the black New Orleans street culture as she was with society people. “I went to my first Mardi Gras Indian parade with Aaron Neville’s uncle, George Landry, who I knew as Uncle Jolly. He was the Big Chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and was in full regalia. He accompanied me to the St. Joseph’s Day parade. I’ve been at the parades and ceremonies ever since.”
Syndey often said that she was able to get the amazing photographs she took because she had the ability to “disappear,” to blend into the background so people aren’t aware she’s there. Syndey said that “Ernst Haas taught me how to disappear. Particularly at the Mardi Gras Indian parades and jazz funerals, as well as the Voodoo ceremonies in Haiti.” I worked with Syndey at the Jazz and Heritage Festival for several years, and I never understood how Syndey Byrd could ever “disappear.” She was a big, colorful and easily recognized woman, always dressed in elegant blouses and flowing skirts, with her long black braids and turquoise jewelry, and her multiple cameras and lenses hanging from her neck. But Syndey had the ability to step right up in front of everyone as though she owned the venue, never hesitate, never look sideways. Unwaveringly focused on her subjects, in the right place at the right moment, she could get perfect photographs.
Syndey, a gregarious, generous woman with a big heart, never quite got the recognition, and never earned the money, she deserved. This year, the Jazz and Heritage Festival finally honored her with a special exhibit of her work. Fest producer Quint Davis said, “Syndey Byrd became a part of the culture that she was recording.” Sadly, Syndey was too ill to attend.
Syndey lived a life as bright and colorful as her photographs, a life as adventuresome as the legendary local characters she loved to photograph. In one of her last interviews, published in this year’s Mardi Gras Guide, Syndey said, “I try to make people who think they are or-dinary feel as if they are truly extraordinary. Everyone has a little bit of magic in them. My job is to bring it out.”
Syndey Byrd was a close friend and professional colleague. I published many of her photographs in my New Orleans and Louisiana Music Calendar, and was planning to feature her in my forthcoming book, T.C.B. Take Care of Business: Guidebook for Musicians, Bands, Songwriters and Music Teachers, due out this Christmas from Bell Springs Publishing.