[ VOL 002, ISS 007 ] in conversation with nell campbell; About Lee Friedlander’s The Jazz People Of New Orleans
Discussion by Nell Campbell & Shaun H Kelly
Nell Campbell is a photographer living in Santa Barbara, California. She grew up in Lake Charles, Louisiana and spent some time living in New Orleans where she began to photograph among other things, the jazz culture of the city. She owns a substantial and noteworthy collection of photobooks. The living room of her home serves as a library where the coffee table and couch serve as makeshift shelves. It is my aspiration to overwhelm a space of my own with photobooks. I asked her to choose any book from her collection and we would sit down and have a conversation. Over Abita Turbodogs (Abita is a beer brewery located 30 miles north of New Orleans) the topic of conversation was largely centered around New Orleans and the work of Lee Friedlander and other photographers we both admire. In no way was the conversation all that linear and we had no expectations but to have a good conversation. Photography and New Orleans was a good place to start.
NC: I debated about Garry Winogrand and then I decided to talk about this book The Jazz People of New Orleans by Lee Friedlander
SM: I didn’t even know about this book.
NC: It came out in 1992 and I read the text a long time ago and I reread some this afternoon, but Friedlander photographed in New Orleans, from ’57 to ’74 apparently, jazz musicians
SM: Yeah, he started out doing musicians as a paying gig. Photographing in color.
NC: I don’t know if I have ever seen any color by Friedlander
SM: I shouldn’t say it’s not good but it’s not his really layered stuff.
NC: There was a photographer in New Orleans, his last name was Bellocq and he photographed prostitutes in Storyville using glass plates and on some of them he scratched out the faces. Friedlander found the glass plates and he printed them using, you’re probably too young to know about Printing Out Paper?
SM: Yeah I don’t know.
NC: It was a paper Kodak made and somebody else probably had it too and you could use it for proofs or contact sheets and you could expose it in the sun and it would turn purple. Portrait studios used it because they’d give people them as proofs but the customer couldn’t do anything with them because if you left them in the light they would darken.
CR: So you never fixed them?
NC: Right. Well I didn’t know you could fix them at the time… I would kill to have some of that paper now but he [Friedlander] fixed them.
SM: How long ago did this happen?
NC: I feel like it was in the early ‘70s, or maybe late ’60s. There’s a Louis Malle movie called Pretty Baby with Brooke Shields that’s about this period of time and there was a show at the Museum of Modern Art and there is a book, I have the book.
SM: You know there are not many interviews, at least that I can find, with Friedlander. But he seems like this quirky out there guy who would be out of touch with everybody but then you read stories about the plates he found and he is connected and he’s been behind the scenes on stuff you wouldn’t necessarily know.
NC: Yeah I’ve never read an interview with him and it does seem like they would show up on the web. I did see his retrospective in New York. That was eight years ago or nine years ago.
SM: MOMA put out that big yellow book.
NC: Yeah I bought that and haven’t opened it because I guess I saw the show [laughs] and I thought that I would look at that at another point in time. So the reason I picked this book today [The Jazz People of New Orleans] is because I lived in New Orleans from 1964 until 1969 and I started taking pictures in New Orleans in 1968 when I got my first camera. And I used to photograph Jazz Funerals. There is a musician in here, Slow Drag Pavageau… I photographed his funeral. So when I was looking today at books I thought part of this time I was in New Orleans he [Friedlander] was photographing there.
SM: So you guys overlapped.
NC: Well, I mean my photographs aren’t anything like Lee Friedlander’s.
SM: Well whose are?
NC: It’s a place I love and it’s a period of time I was there. It’s interesting to know a photographer when you’re young or you learn about a photographer and then you look at them later when you get older and you have a different [perspective].
NC: Some of these photos are pretty straightforward portraits and then some of them are more kind of the Friedlander style.
SM: Yeah this one of Slow Drag… it’s that low angle, shooting up his torso… and others I guess are pretty straightforward but you still see those skewed angles and things [that Friedlander is known for].
I started paying attention to Friedlander when I was shooting black and white and I feel like I pick up on somebody and I get really interested for a while and then everything I try to shoot ends up emulating them, to the point that I should stop.
NC: I knew somebody once who said it’s not a bad thing to do. You should just do it and you’ll work yourself out of it.
SM: I hope so.
NC: Or you will work into something that’s different.
NC: Not all the pictures in the book are as straightforward as the portraits, or as formal. A lot are taken at Jazz Funerals. Brass Bands parade in the fall and people follow and dance behind the bands. The photos of those events are more in the Friedlander style that we think of.
SM: It’s interesting, this one of Papa Jack Lane and then the one of Slow Drag, they almost feel a little bit like his self-portraits.
NC: I wonder if Friedlander was ever a musician, if he ever played music.
SM: Yeah I don’t know. But you know, a lot of his self-portraits often have that low angle.
NC: Do you know the book Self Portrait?
NC: I bought that when it came out and there is at least one photo in there from New Orleans and I recognize, it’s just a window, but I knew that window. To me it’s like reading a novel when you’re twenty and then, reading it again when you’re thirty-five or when you’re fifty. What you bring to it and what strikes you about it is completely different.
SM: So how long ago did you get The Jazz People of New Orleans?
SM: And looking at it then and looking at it more recently, because you said you connected to it because of the locale, but looking at it now because you haven’t been in New Orleans for so long, is it the same feeling when you look at it or something different?
NC: Well, I still like seeing it because it is a time period in my life and I am probably relating to it more personally and should think about it more photographically but because I spent the first two years of my life in New Orleans which I don’t really remember, but we went there all the time… my family and I did. And I used to stay with my Aunt in New Orleans by myself when I was a kid. And we always went to New Orleans and I went to college and lived there before I came to California and I’ve always gone back. So it’s kind of… what’s the term, well it’s my home as much as Lake Charles is.
SM: They’re not too far apart are they?
NC: Two hundred miles.
SM: Ok but you said you should think about them photographically instead of personally. So tell me what you mean.
NC: Well I was thinking about the ones of the people in the streets and some of the people I know of, some of the people I photographed at street parades, and I look at these and I think I am always trying to make a focus. To really have a sense of what it was like to be there. I photographed Kid Sheik and Sadie Cola [a New Orleans Jazz musician also photographed by Friedlander] and I took this picture of the whole family and I took the prints back next time I went to New Orleans and went and knocked on the door, and gave them to Sadie. She thought I was trying to sell them [laughs].
SM: She accepted them?
SM: What was the span of time between you taking them and you giving them.
NC: That I don’t remember.
SM: Are we talking years and years?
NC: No I don’t think it was very long, it might have been a couple of months.
SM: So what do you think about this one?… The Young Tuxedo Brass Band
NC: Well I’ve heard of these bands and it is a little time capsule because of the Pepsi billboard and I don’t want to look at as being just a nostalgia thing but you know it feels like it’s a cold winter day. And the other thing I’ve noticed is that now when you go [to the parades] there are these huge crowds and at this time the jazz funerals were really for jazz musicians. And now people hire jazz bands to have a jazz funeral. Then as all the older jazz musicians were dying off it felt as though the jazz funerals were going to end. And now they have a second or third life and also New Orleans has changed since the hurricane [Hurricane Katrina] not just physically but there are so many new people who moved to New Orleans, mostly young people, and New Orleans has gotten really popular. I think because it almost got lost and people think it’s really interesting and tourism is huge. I photographed the Mardi Gras Indians three or four times. The first time was in 1991. And they do a parade on Super Sunday (which is the Sunday closest to March 19, which is St. Josephs Day) and there were some people there and we followed the route all the way from St. John’s Bayou all the way to the Municipal Auditorium and there were a few people taking pictures. And then I noticed from pictures in the newspaper at St. Joseph’s Day this year there were police barricades and it’s a huge crowd now. When I lived there I didn’t even know about the Mardi Gras Indians. They were their own thing in their own world.
SM: Couldn’t you almost look at this photo and on the billboard is a white woman with a Pepsi in her hand and here is this culture other than theirs imposing its presence on their culture. And how does that relate? Maybe it has become something different.
NC: The truth is at that time you didn’t see black people in ads or commercials on television. So maybe that is why you notice it because you are younger but in a certain way I don’t think about it because I am used to how that was the way it was at the time. There were magazines geared toward African Americans but on the streets… You are much more thoughtful than I am.
CR: I don’t know. I might be imposing too much myself.
NC: No, you’re right it is interesting.
SM: To me, maybe I am way off base here but here is The Young Tuxedo Brass Band, the Pepsi billboard behind them and a Stop Ahead sign and turn the page and at the bottom of the frame is a car edging its way into the crowd. So here again, not that cars were new to this culture but does that same idea carry over into this frame, a more modern way of life pushing its way onto the crowd?
NC: Well I don’t know if that car is moving or it’s just parked.
SM: Sure, we could never know. Do you know what the significance was or is for a parade for a funeral?
NC: Well there is a service, then the band comes and they play funeral dirges on the way to the cemetery, there is usually a hearse taking the body but everyone else is walking. After the burial they play upbeat music and people are dancing. But I don’t know how it evolved….
SM: It reminds me of Albert Camus’ The Stranger, in the opening scene his mom has died and they walk to the graveside with the casket.
NC: So the tradition of how you get the body to the cemetery is that you walk it there.
SM: Maybe it is just a matter of practicality that you have to get the body from the church to the cemetery. This is a cool frame how the back window of the hearse mimics the shape of the church.
NC: I was looking at that church today and I have no idea where it is but it reminded me of some of the churches I saw in the lower ninth ward after the hurricane. You know I tend to photograph things pretty straight on and I am trying to break myself of that but I don’t think like this. I once saw a video of Joel Meyerowitz of him photographing on the street in New York and he is jumping around all over the place in front of people. It’s really interesting to see how some street photographers work. It was shocking to me in a way, how he was such a presence. I am always trying not to be such a presence. And it’s different if you are at an event but I guess the other thing about this book for me is that I was photographing on the street in New Orleans, I lived in the French Quarter and I walked around trying to learn how to take pictures. I didn’t even have a light meter [laughs] and when I was thinking about it today… photographing on the streets in New Orleans was my roots. I guess because I am interested in the culture.
SM: Were you photographing events just to be there or as paying gigs?
NC: No, and I don’t know what my intention was. I was just documenting things. And it was the kind of photography I was drawn to and I didn’t photograph things I wasn’t interested in but I have photographed things I didn’t agree with.
SM: Well that doesn’t negate that you were interested. If it does, I don’t want to look at William Christenberry’s Klu Klux Klan work anymore.
NC: [Laughs] Right.
SM: I tend to shoot differently when I am working versus when I am shooting for myself.
NC: I worked for the United Farm Workers, following Cesar Chavez. And I travelled with him for six weeks in 1976. It was the most grueling six weeks of my life. We would often get up at 7:00 in the morning after sleeping on the floor somewhere; I was the only woman in the group. There was Cesar, the Press Secretary, the Head of Security, and all these young Chicano guys who were the guards and the drivers. We travelled in two Plymouths. I think it had a flat head six engine. It was something easy to work on and that was why they chose them. They had a fleet of these Plymouths. But I think about how I was always trying to do my job, and a lot of times I could have done my job in thirty minutes or an hour and then I could have just taken pictures myself. And I did do some of that but I think about what I could have done. But then I look at it and some of it I like but some of I think is really junk. But you have a different mindset. And it’s different for different people. I often wonder if it’s gender, people work differently obviously, but I see some people who really ponder their shots and then people who just go off intuitively and shoot. I tend to operate more intuitively. And sometimes I over shoot something, especially if it is still [laughs] and I think I lose something because it’s not intuitive anymore.
SM: Yes, once you realize you are in a moment you have killed that moment and you are creating a new perspective.
NC: I haven’t seen your photos so I don’t know how you shoot.
SM: I try to be intuitive. So getting back to Friedlander, and you mentioned the Meyerowitz video, and I have never seen a video of Friedlander shooting but he often seems very unnoticed.
NC: Well in this shot, this is probably a 28mm [lens].
SM: Yeah he has got to be close. Nobody in this frame is looking at him, and granted there might be ten other frames with someone looking at him….
NC: And a lot of these people probably knew him. I remember at a jazz funeral in one of the cemeteries, one of the St. Louis cemeteries I think. And people were climbing on the tombs [in order to see] and I have this memory of this man photographing with a camera like a Leica and I wonder if it was Friedlander. I have no idea. I should go back and look at my negatives. [Looking at the book again] I love these shots taken from the side, looking at the procession going by and maybe it is sentimentality for me and it shows the time but there is also the Friedlander…. I mean here is a telephone pole in the middle of the frame. I would be trying to get that pole out.
SM: On the left side of the pole there is nothing but women and on the right nothing but men. And then the next frame is the band and it’s made up of nothing but men.
NC: There were women singers but I don’t remember women musicians other than women who played the piano.
SM: Yeah and you aren’t going to see a piano in a parade. But here in this frame the man and woman look like they are about to run into one another. Maybe there is no tension here between men and women but I think it’s interesting to look at that divide.
NC: Have you ever seen Paul Fusco’s RFK Funeral Train? I think it’s a great book.
SM: Yeah, I think so. No one had thought to photograph a funeral procession in that way and now that he did it, it’s done and another photographer doing it would just be copying him.
NC: When I saw the book, it’s so fascinating because he is shooting from a moving train with a slow film. And I think about it and part of me at the time would have thought that it’s technically kind of weak but it’s a great book. I don’t think about it that way now. For me it’s trying not to see things straightforward.
SM: Friedlander certainly challenges some traditional ideas of composition. Like sticking a phone pole right in the middle of the frame and completely disrupting the flow of this line of people.
NC: And why do you think he did that?
SM: I don’t know.
NC: It’s kind of the way we see. Maybe not so consciously but it is.
SM: It is, and maybe it’s about how the camera sees. Unless we are paying attention we would ignore that phone pole. But the camera wouldn’t. Friedlander’s frames are often so cluttered… like in this frame with all these women.
NC: They are the second liners, the dancers.
SM: It’s interesting because there is a lot of clutter but it works. It’s all about the women. These two men, the trumpet, the sax, the banner all kind of frame these women. Maybe another photographer would have hoped they had a telephoto lens to get in there….
NC: But this feels like what it is like to be there. New Orleans is its own special place.
SM: Which is what is nice. But that’s what I was talking about when I look at Friedlander doing that kind of thing and then I catch myself doing the exact same thing and I don’t know what to do. I like in this frame this guy’s posture. Looks like he is dancing and it kind of looks like a response to the camera.
SM: Who published the book?
NC: Pantheon. I think I bought this second hand.
SM: I like buying second hand. Yesterday I was down in L.A. and I went to Arcana Books. Have you been to their new location?
NC: Yes it is kind of mind boggling.
SM: Exactly. At their old location, granted much of their stuff was in the back and you had to ask for it so you couldn’t really browse through everything they had, but I spent two hours there [at the new location] and I felt like I didn’t hardly look at anything. I realized I like going to used bookstores because there is a limited selection and when you find one it is great. But at Arcana I know there are hundreds of great books but I can’t sit there and search through every single one and find that one I like. It was a lot more sterile than the old store. Clean and white. But it was fine.
NC: They let me go in the back once…
SM: At the old store?
NC: Yeah because I asked to use the restroom so they took me through the back and it was like being in the stacks of a library, just shelves and shelves and shelves of more books.
SM: Yeah I guess that is why they got out of the old spot.
NC: And because Culver City [where the new store is located] is the happening spot now.
SM: I noticed that driving around. And Third Street Promenade [in Santa Monica where Arcana used to be located] is such a commercial spot. It seemed like an odd place for an art bookstore.
NC: Hennessey + Ingalls is still there, it is on Wilshire now but it used to be on the Promenade and there was a bookstore called Midnight Special. It was a general bookstore but it started out mostly as a political bookstore in the ‘70s or ‘80s but they went out of business.
SM: Well so my intent was to get a book, I wasn’t sure what, but after two hours of searching I thought I am definitely getting a book and there is no way I am walking out of here without one or I mind as well spit on the floor on the way out. But I was so stuck on what to get. So after all that I ended up getting William Eggleston’s Guide. I just happened to not own that book. So after digging through all these contemporary books trying to come across one I never had seen before….
NC: If I bought every book I ever wanted I’d be in the poorhouse.
SM: Yeah there was a book I really wanted to get, and my budget was only about thirty bucks, but the book I wanted was about one hundred dollars.
NC: What was it?
SM: Hillbilly Heroin, Honey [by Hannah Modigh]
NC: Well it’s great to get Eggleston. You know I bought an Eggleston book at a rummage sale for I think five dollars. And it’s signed.
SM: Really?? What book?
NC: [Leaves to get the book] It’s the Hasselblad Award book.
SM: That’s really cool. They had no idea.
NC: Do you want another beer?
SM: No I am good.
NC: Do you think we have anything worthwhile [recorded]?
SM: Yeah I think so.
NC: So are you going to the Solstice parade?
SM: I didn’t plan on it but after looking at Friedlander’s work I think maybe I should.
NC: I go when they are lining up. I used to follow the parade but I don’t care about those shots anymore I guess. Mostly I just walk around and it’s habit. But I thought maybe I should try to be more serious this year. The other thing I like to do is once it passes me at Cota Street I go to Paradise Café and have a hamburger. I am done.
SM: Well I just think about parking and I say forget it.
[After browsing Friedlander’s book a bit more, thumbing through Eggleston’s Hasselblad book as well as Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi, we shared stories that should not have been recorded and then called it a night.]