In 2008, Zack Smith commandeered a back corner of the Voodoo grounds in City Park where he set up a photo booth. Specially-made wallpaper hung on one wall, and a sheet of plywood on a couple of sawhorses stored an array of cameras. Over the course of the weekend, he cycled musicians, fans and members of the music community through his makeshift photo booth. Smith repeated the process in 2009 and has executed a number of similar serial portrait projects at Chaz Fest and last year, when he shot “The Faces of Rock” using a homemade light box.
Smith has feet in two creative worlds—in the art community as a photographer and a partner in Canary Gallery on Julia Street, and as the drummer for Rotary Downs. At Voodoo, his interests come together; he performs and he documents New Orleans music at its most inclusive, shooting across ages and levels of involvement. Next year, a book of his portraits, Beyond Selves, will be published, but between now and then he’s got a photo booth to run at the Voodoo Experience in City Park on Halloween weekend.
How did you get into photography?
The camera is a tool to record what you see, right? After writing so long in high school and college, I started seeing things that I couldn’t write down. I started shooting and taught myself how to develop film, how to print, how to do all that, in my newly converted bathroom. After knocking on every door in town hustling for work and getting my feet wet, I ended up working with Herman Leonard for three years before Katrina. I miss that motherfucker.
I understand you had an interesting set-up when you did your Voodoo portraits. Do you think that stylized look is reflective in some way of the Voodoo experience?
Stephen Rehage gave me a chance, but I owe a lot of what I do to Ben Jaffe and the folks at Preservation Hall. They’ve given me the opportunity to document the very talented and amazing musicians who play on their stage. Two years ago, I partnered up with John Sherman from Flavor Paper to make a custom wallpaper backdrop, and John created this Voodoo-meets- Preservation Hall emblem. I built four 4’x8’ wood backdrops and John and Ben came that morning and laid the wallpaper on the backdrops. I got these iconic shots of Walter “Wolfman” Washington, Marva Wright—bless her soul—Rockie Charles—also not with us—Joe Cabral, Luke Allen, the list goes on. Last year I decided to do just a very simple 20’x20’ butterfly (a large diffusion panel), two of my custom light boxes, and only shot one day because the year before almost killed me. We had played that day, we played Halloween night, that Saturday—and I came back again the next day to shoot portraits. Brutal.
Do you have any planned or ongoing projects?
Yes! I’m doing a book right now, probably out in the summer of next year. It’s phases of portrait photography. I started with a white backdrop with simple, simple portraits. I had a king-sized bedsheet on a pole outside of Jazz Fest in ’01. I think I shot 500 people in two days. The first shot I asked them to do a relaxed face, looking at me, and the next shot I said, “Do whatever you want.” That started what I’m doing now, the simple backdrop and people just being themselves. That’s what I’m trying to transfer into Voodoo Fest—photographing musicians who have just performed and gotten more of their 15 minutes. The book covers the projects I did at Jazz Fest all the way up to Voodoo 2010.
Your portfolio has live and editorial shots of bands. Which ones do you prefer?
I used to do mostly live shots. I started to gravitate towards portraits of musicians because I think I learned more about them and myself. The frenetic pace of shooting live shows would never cut it when you are trying to get to the essence of someone’s personality. You need to slow down. I needed to slow down, and I started to. Allowing the music to just “take you” in live music photography didn’t translate at all to shooting the people behind the music.
The things that I like to focus on when I’m photographing people, if they’re musicians—and I do a lot of them—are very schizophrenic. I like shooting their calm manner, and on the other hand, I like to create visual tapestries that have so much going on in them. I like to think that musicians trust me to make them look good.
You’re picking up what they’re putting down.
I’m picking it up and looking at it and seeing if it reflects in the light. If it does, I’ll put it in my pocket; if it doesn’t, I’ll give it back to them.