by John Pope, The Times-Picayune
Michael P. Smith, a photographer who spent three decades capturing vivid, vibrant images at jazz funerals, Mardi Gras Indian ceremonies and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, died Friday at his New Orleans home of two diseases that destroyed his nervous system. He was 71.
A man of boundless energy who devoted himself to the culture he chronicled, Mr. Smith seemed to be everywhere at whatever event he was shooting. Fellow photographers joked that every good Jazzfest picture they took included the back of Mr. Smith's head.
Mr. Smith's subjects included Mahalia Jackson, Irma Thomas, James Booker, Harry Connick Jr., Professor Longhair and the Neville Brothers, as well as anonymous mourners, strutters and Indians whom Mr. Smith always managed to capture caught up in the moment.
"I don't think there's another photographer who has more sensitively documented very significant aspects of the second half of 20th century New Orleans culture," said Steven Maklansky, a former curator of photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
Mr. Smith started concentrating on this kind of photography at a 1969 jazz funeral and kept at it, covering every Jazzfest through 2003. Though he showed up at subsequent festivals, silently cradling his camera, the degeneration of his nervous system had put an end to his career.
He built up a trove of more than 500,000 negatives, many of which remain unprocessed because he couldn't afford to have them developed, said Michael Sartisky, president and executive director of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
"He did something that no other photographer had done: He captured the cultural landscape of the streets and did so with a vision of passion and beauty," said Jason Berry, who has written extensively about indigenous music.
This world provided a sharp contrast to the genteel environment in which he had grown up. A child of Metairie who was a star athlete, he was the son of a member of the Rex organization and the Boston Club, and he graduated from Metairie Park Country Day School and Tulane University.
Everything changed, he said in a 1995 interview, when he went to work as Tulane's jazz archive's staff photographer in the 1960s. He heard hours and hours of the music that had been created in New Orleans' bars and brothels, and he was hooked.
"He paid attention when many locals took that culture for granted or ignored it," said Bruce Raeburn, the archive's curator.
Around that time, Mr. Smith met Matthew Herron, a photographer with the Black Star agency living in New Orleans, and became his assistant.
With Paul Barbarin's funeral in 1969, Mr. Smith began his photographic exploration, abandoning the realm of his youth.
"I have friends in that privileged world, but haven't had much interest in the society I grew up in since discovering the folk community of New Orleans, a side of town I had never known that struck me as the real heart of the city," Mr. Smith said in the interview.
He summed up his philosophy in three words: "Follow the music."
He was a founder of Tipitina's, the Uptown music club that has become famous worldwide. Mr. Smith's pictures have been collected in five books, and in magazine articles.
To supplement his income, Mr. Smith regularly took commercial jobs, such as shooting pictures for annual reports.
Mr. Smith's work has been shown in galleries, embassies and museums and at jazz festivals, and it is part of the permanent collections of the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, the Louisiana State Museum, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art and the New Orleans Museum of Art.
In March 2007, the Historic New Orleans Collection bought Mr. Smith's archives, which contain more than 2,000 rolls of black-and-white film, tens of thousands of color slides and about 200 audiotapes. Collection spokeswoman Mary Mees declined to disclose the price.
"Michael P. Smith has defined the visual appearance of contemporary homegrown New Orleans music for people around the world," said John Lawrence, the collection's director of museum programs.
Mr. Smith's work is important, Lawrence said, because "it serves to document not just the musicians and their music, but the environment, social structures and neighborhoods that both create and sustain the musical traditions."
Mr. Smith received two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the 2002 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, the Mayor's Arts Award, the Clarence John Laughlin Lifetime Achievement Award from the local chapter of the American Society of Magazine Photographers and the Artist Recognition Award from the New Orleans Museum of Art's Delgado Society.
Survivors include a companion, Karen Louise Snyder; two daughters, Jan Lamberton Smith of Quail Springs, Calif., and Leslie Blackshear Smith of New Orleans; a brother, Joseph Byrd Hatchitt Smith of Port Angeles, Wash.; and two grandchildren.