AN INTERVIEW WITH HAROLD BAQUET
By Charles H. Rowell
Callaloo Vol. 14 No. 3, p.673-681
This interview was conducted on Sunday, March 24, 1991, at Olivier's Restaurant, 911 Decatur Street, New Orleans, Louisiana, where an exhibition of Mr. Baquet's photographic work was mounted.
ROWELL: What does it mean, at the present time, to be a photographer in a context such as New Orleans, which is, historically and culturally, very rich but-what with the decline in the local oil and gas industry-economically poor? There are infinite possibilities for subjects here. But what is the audience for your work like here? This is not New York, you know, where there is a critical audience for photography as art.
How is photography received here? What does working as a photographer, an artist, in New Orleans mean for you?
BAQUET: New Orleans is a good place to be an artist because it is inexpensive to live here and perfect your talent. It is not a good market to sell because there is a depressed economy. That makes photography especially hard to sell as art. There is just not a market educated to invest in photographers as artistic leaders. Consequently, you see a lot of New Orleans photographers shooting everything-weddings, ad work, portraits. They do it to survive. Black artists, however, move this city, create this city, yet we're just coming into our own as a community. Take shooting the Mardi Gras Indians, for example. I've been photographing Indians for years because everybody's got a father or grandfather who's an Indian. It's part of what makes us rich as an African-American culture. Yet white photographers, rather than black photographers, have artistically exposed and exploited this event.
As a black photographer, I definitely feel it is my responsibility to start covering our rich heritage, our culture, ourselves-to put our curve on the bail, put our slant on the subject, to let our sensitivities as black artists be perceived.
Here in New Orleans, we are trying to get a grip on our culture, to do our own work. That means developing our own ideas and opinions about our people, our culture, and our lifestyles. These things are inaccessible to a white photographer because they cannot be fully comprehended by him or her. I don't mean that black culture is by its nature incomprehensible, but the white artist is not historically or emotionally able to explain the black perspective and the black culture. He or she can be sensitive to it, but the white photographers can't see it from our vantage point: being here, understanding it, living and growing up black, growing up with the Aride, the insecurities, the rhythms and the flavors-the things that make us unique. Black artists take this for granted. Our culture is so rich.
In New Orleans, for example, black folks have had access to the world-to Africa, to the Caribbean, to the Americas. We're a port city. Our climate is hot. Our food is hot. While we value what's ours and respect it, we've lost the curiosity for it. And that is what black artists need to rediscover-the curiosity about being black and being American.
ROWELL: Black photographers have not been as visible-and as great in numbers in New Orleans as musicians have been. Therefore, black photographers have not had time to develop a vast audience here. What is your audience like at the present time?
BAQUET: Our people, our subjects, are our audience. They have been adversely affected by circumstances beyond our control. We have an acknowledged photographic heritage here in New Orleans. There is Mr. Arthur Bedou. He took everyone's baby photograph. He documented the Creole community, New Orleans people of color. It was a big thing to have a Bedou portrait. It meant you were a person of means. You had contracted a professional. That photo would be proudly displayed on the mantelpiece.
There was also Marion Porter, a great documentary photographer and photojournalist. He really was "black photojournalism" in New Orleans. He documented the Civil Rights struggles in New Orleans, which for the most part would have gone unnoticed and undocumented. Many of the contemporary photographers acknowledge these individuals and their part in our history.
But a lot of the great work was lost to Hurricane Betsy. We don 't realize the value of this loss which included early photos of some of our great black leaders, such as the late Dutch Morial and Andy Young (during his childhood). Hurricane Betsy in 1965 destroyed not just the photos, but the negatives of this work. Some families have no photographic history prior to this date. Whole collections and entire bodies of works were destroyed. Just imagine. In one night, an entire history can be lost.
It is a long answer to your question, but I think that is why black photography as an art form is still building here. It has had to rebuild from the ground up.
ROWELL: You speak as if there is already an engaging, critical audience for photography as art in New Orleans. What is the historic significance of "Crescent Eyes," the exhibition that you and other black photographers have mounted at Perseverence Hall, Number 4, in Armstrong Park?
BAQUET: This is the first contemporary photographic collection showcased by black artists in a formal art setting. The site of the exhibition has the potential to be a contemporary photographic museum, if we can continue to get support and resources. This exhibit, "Crescent Eyes," is a body of work by local black men and women. It is our eyes. It is our culture, from where we live in the crescent of the Mississippi River.
We are acknowledging our responsibility to our people, our culture, our history. We hope that the more people who are made aware of it, the more people will find interest in our expression, in our eyes.
You know, the exhibit is located in Armstrong Park, dedicated to Louis Armstrong,
but formerly called Congo Square. Congo Square was the only black gallowed in pre-Civil War days. The white community tried to appease blacks by giving them a place to practice their religion. It was the only place where blacks were allowed to dance and speak their own languages. Whites didn't want to teach us religion, so they would let us conduct our rituals. They saw it as a way of keeping us ignorant. Isn't it interesting that this place helped us open our eyes? Let's keep opening them.
New Orleans can look like a strange place to the outsider. We have our own songs, our own dances, our own music and marches, our own social and marching clubs, our own food. Many of these traditions can be traced back to the days of Congo Square. Black New Orleans deserves our coverage, our love, our respect, our curiosity.
ROWELL: Is this the first time there has been a collective black photography exhibition in New Orleans? I suppose individual black photographers have mounted one person shows in New Orleans. Have they?
BAQUET: Yes, this is the first time that New Orleans black photographers have come together and collaborated to make a unified statement about ourselves and our city. That is an amazing milestone. We have no funding outside of our own pockets. People come up to us and ask, "Well, who sponsored you?" We literally did it all ourselves. We cut the mattes, cut the glass, and hung the photographs ourselves. Let us hope that this kind of exhibition is something that will go on. Maybe if we can draw some attention to the work we're doing, it can continue to grow. We would also like to pass on a photographic legacy, just as our musical and our cultural legacies have been passed on to us. We would like to pass on this photographic record, this legacy of image making, to the next generation.
Some of the projects that we're engaged in take us into the community, where we have pulled out some interested young people. We're going to keep doing this and give them some photographic instruction. We're going to solicit film and cameras. The ones that we won 't donate ourselves, we'll get from the community. Our exhibit will be from our kids, their existence and their interpretation of their lives. It's a beautiful concept because we all try to see through the eyes of children. We lose that innocence as we become adults and we come to the age of reason. There is something special about seeing life through the eyes of a child.
During the summer of 1989, I worked in New Orleans East, the suburbs, in an interesting community made up of Vietnamese and African Americans. It's privately-owned, government-subsidized, Section 8 housing. I went back there with some local photographers. Some of my brothers came out and gave me a hand, and we instructed the kids in basic photography. We rented cameras from each other and from camera stores that would like to keep our business. We had donated cameras. When the Times Picayune heard about what we were doing, they gave us film. Some other people also donated film. Within a period of eight weeks the children themselves documented this amazing community where two cultures merge. You have Southern Baptists living right next door to Buddhists.
It's truly amazing. Neither one of us, blacks or Vietnamese, have been mainstreamed
The only thing is that African Americans have been here three hundred years, and it has taken us three hundred years to realize our obstacles. The Vietnamese, having been here over a period of 15 years, are coming across some of the same obstacles. It's an interesting mirror to focus back on ourselves. That particular project was really fascinating. We'd like to do more things, more outreach programs like that.
We feel that we have the talent as far as outreach is concerned. We have some definite ideas about what we're going to do with this wonderful space that we're in, with our own talents, and where we would like to see photography go in the future. We can't all do weddings. We can't all pursue our commercial undertakings and forget the historical significance of our being here. It would be very easy to let it happen. After struggling to make that next mug shot, just say, "Hey, man, I can't make it to another seminar. I can't go with this. I can't go with that." And you really have to find it within yourself. What's interesting is this: now that our culture is being brought to the forefront, more and more, we must realize that if the world doesn't receive our views and opinions of us, it's going to receive someone else's.
ROWELL: You've spoken of photography almost as if it were mere documentation. Obviously, photography is also an art. We are sitting here in Olivier's Restaurant where many of your photographs are exhibited on the walls. I'm looking at your hand painted photograph called "Just a Closer." Its subject is obviously the jazz funeral, but that photograph, which is mixed media, is more than documentation. The viewer who knows nothing of New Orleans culture knows that the event or moment represented in the photograph is some kind of ritual. There is a kind of healing in that photograph. You dont have to know the jazz funeral in New Orleans to appreciate the art of "Just a Closer."
BAQUET: The Hindu people say this: If you take my photograph, you capture my eyes. You capture my soul. You steal my soul. That's part of the magic of photography: it has the ability to render reality in photographic terms. It's to look on the faces of your subjects and transmit their solemnity with respect.
There's a seriousness about the ritual in "Just a Closer." It represents a march, but a different kind of march. It's like the difference between a parade march and a wedding march; this is a funeral march. It's been carried on for years and years. If you're a member of the social organization, you live with this joy of life. And when you're sent away, you go to meet your God. It's a joyous endeavor because you know about God, and just as we've always, as a people, maintained a respect for our Maker, we've also learned to respect each other.
The New Orleans ceremony of the jazz funeral has many parts. The wake is held at the home, and then the body is usually taken to a neighborhood church. There is a real somber march to the church. But after the service, after the body is put into the hearse-although a horse drawn carriage is still often used as in the old days-at this point there is a silence. And then the beat starts. It's a solemn heel beat, a very silent cadence as the march moves towards the graveyard. Someone begins a song, a slow song, a funeral march. Upon arriving at the graveyard, there is the part of the ceremony called "Raising the Body" in which the coffin is raised over the heads of the family, the body is offered up, and the soul is commended to heaven. At the grave, as the final services conclude, the family gives a sign. It's their mood that dictates the spirit of the funeral. In acknowledging a life well-served, and a happier existence in the everafter, a joyous celebration begins. That's the part most people think of, the party that's in the jazz funeral. It is a celebration. We celebrate life and death through our music, our dance, our rhythms. We go back to Congo Square with our rituals.
I think about the rhythms of our hearts and the rhythms of our lives. I think about the heartbeats of all those souls who died in slave ships and the heavy burdens carried by those who arrived. It's a special existence for us here in America. The jazz funeral is a special release, dating back to those days, an acceptable form of release. It was a compensation. Isn't it wonderful that we still have this cultural heritage to gain from and live with? We draw from it, we pass it on. Life is richer because of our heritage.
It makes me think of another black experience central to New Orleans. Everyone knows about Mardi Gras, the greatest free show on earth. When the floats were first drawn by horse through the streets of this city, there were no street lights like today. The only way people could watch the parades at night was with flambeaux or lighted flares or in most cases lighted kerosene lanterns, to be carned on a stick alongside the floats. The flambeaux lit the floats. Because of the danger, as well as the arduous task of carrying these heavy torches miles and miles during the night parades, the task of carrying flambeaux fell to strong black men. Black men made possible the very parades they were socially excluded from.
Although the floats today are electronically powered, and there is no longer a need for flambeaux to light a parade, this torch tradition continues and they continue to be held by black men. Years ago there were hundreds of flambeaux, although today there may be only thirty or so in an entire parade.
In February, the parade season, to see the night lit by the fires is wonderful. The glow in the old days would signify the coming of the parade. Today, the eery incandescence is most easily spotted in the parade lineup where all the flambeaux are lit.
There has been talk of eliminating this tradition, mainly because of the danger to the carrier. It is easy for the carrier's hair, head, and arms to be burned by the flambeaux. That's why there is such a code of discipline among the flambeaux carriers. They police themselves proudly during the parade. These men wait all year to march with flambeaux. Most of them are too poor to join a social aid and pleasure club, which is the type of organization men and women join to raise funds to ride in and sponsor a parade. A flambeaux carrier may earn only fifteen dollars for the parade, but in the old days it could have been as little as twenty-flve cents. Still they are an essential part of the parade. They are as important as the Dukes or Captains riding on horseback in their gilded costumes. Every kid wanted to grow up and be a flambeaux carrier. I did. I've documented the traditions of these men before their experience becomes extinct. Their expressions and their pride are still exciting to me.
ROWELL: Will you talk about your traditional photographic work? Of course, "Just a Closer" is not a traditional photograph. You not only use paint in it; you also use pen and ink. Will you also talk about your use of mixed media?
BAQUET: I exhibit a lot of work. Some is simply black and white photography. There is a purist approach to black and white photography which I appreciate. Photography is something sacred. Some would consider it something which can't be tampered with. But I'm not always a purist. I also exhibit work using what I call an integration of styles, substances, techniques, and media. It's integrated photography. Maybe there is a parallel to this in music. You know, a lot of people wouldn't allow their children to listen to jazz when it was first developing. It wasn't considered right or moral. But jazz was a manipulation of traditional forms. This photographic work is like jazz. I've given my photographs their own manipulation. I've taken techniques and brought them together in traditional black and white photography.
I have a brother. He's my father's son from a previous marnage. Since my father
was 60 when he had me, that makes my older brother really an older brother. He is a photographer too. He's a black and white purist. When he saw my integrated work it upset him. He said it was a waste of a good photo. He also said if one is going to put color on a black and white photograph, it should be done with oils. I'm using all kinds of things to color photographs. One of my favorite techniques is to use Prismacolor in a stick form, or wax based pencil. I print on matte surface papes so that it can pick up the color. I like to use pen and ink, colored pencils, oils, including traditional photo oils, and heavy oils. Even acrylics with a pallet knife. That way I can cut and create textures into the frame. You know, the photograph is not reality. We don't live in a two-dimensional world. Reality is three-dimensional, who knows, multidimensional. That's what I'm trying to add when I color photographs-optics, physics.
There is an old story that a photo doesn't lie. That's not true. The photo can lie. It
can be made to lie. The coldness and science of photography can leave expression out. My integrated work is an attempt to capture these abstracts, these subliminals, those ribbons and spirits of hearts, that energy that lenses dont allow.
With our people, for example, there is a lot of spirituality. Sweeping, interpretative
colors are like an EKG reading a heartbeat, adding that ta-dump, that beat, that energy, making it real, not abstract, not imaginary. Although black and white photography can document our daily lives and add a great deal of sensitivity and knowledge to everyday experiences, there is something to be gained from interpretative perception. I believe my integrated photography adds a magical dimension and a translation to some of the abstract experiences of black men and women. I create visual images that allow our people, and those who want to know us, to see and understand what makes our culture a unique one.
ROWELL: What did you use for the color in "Evergreen Plants"?
BAQUET: Mostly it's color pencil. There is sonie oil in the photo for color saturation, but mostly it's pencil. Some think it's not right to color on photos like that, but I'm a self-taught photographer. Maybe my art doesn't reflect the influence of academia either.
ROWELL: What about "The Cups"?
BAQUET: "The Cups"? This piece says a lot about New Orleans. We're a big coffee port; I've heard it said that we consume more coffee per capita than any other American City. In New Orleans, we love our coffee with chicory. To me, the important event in the picture is the washing of the cups. It's like the good time had passed, the interesting conversation had passed, and somebody had to wash all those cups. In this piece, the glow was done with airbrush. I think it's a nice mixture. Photography is so open to experimentation yet. Who is to define what photography is, what is the proper use of the medium? I think we can agree that we can take the best of everything and make something more wonderful, the sum being greater than the parts. My use of integrated photography serves that purpose to better translate that particular idea. It depends on the subject matter and what that photograph means to me and what I'd like to add or translate visually.
In "The Cups" and the jazz funeral piece you notice the black border. I like to walk outside the border sometimes. In some pieces I emphasize it. Henri Cartier-Bresson popularized printing the unexposed border surrounding the frame of the photograph. He used the black border to show the viewer that he or she was getting everything that the camera saw, every piece, every photon of life that entered the lens and struck the film. It is a gimmick to print the border. I've overemphasized it because I'm in the frame of mind to eradicate the border or take away its importance. I leave it behind in many pieces, expressing that we should have no borders and no boundaries. It's my way of breaking the boundaries and breaking with traditional photographic gimmicks. I'm urging the viewer to go beyond it.
ROWELL: Will you comment on "Cabin in the Sky" as subject and as photograph?
BAQUET: That's slave cabin material. The building is a real slave cabin, several hundred years old, although I don't have an exact date on it. It's upriver from New Orleans, between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, in St. John the Baptist Parish. Can you imagine how it feels to walk into a slave cabin and wonder how hard it was for our ancestors to live in this little space? Two families lived per cabin, sharing a fireplace. These little wood houses had lots of holes between the panels of the walls and the floors. Even then, the slaves tried to fill the holes with paper to keep out the wind and the rain. You're looking at an interior wall of one of the cabins. A man's home is his castle, but this was no castle, let me tell you. Slavery could hardly have been an existence and, much less, this cabin could not have been a home.
But our people survived this. We did it. We managed to pull through and, again, because of the spirit, the soul, and the energy of our people. Being in this space, there was a feeling I got, trying to imagine what was happening two hundred to three hundreed years ago. Try and imagine the unimaginable! Try and imagine the smells and the sounds, and where the children would be. Open the back window and look out the back door on all the miles and miles of planted sugarcane. This is a pastoral setting; there are no skylines. You'd look out your window and see your job. Open your window, and there's your job. It's like having a job you could never quit, never call in sick, or leave or escape. Then look at your children and wonder if this is all you're going to leave them.
I'm 32 years old. I'll be 33 in July. I'm going around a little bit for a second. I was married and had a little boy born with Downs Syndrome named Harold, Jr. I lost him at age three to leukemia. Right now I fantasize what he would be. He was my only kid. I wonder what he would be into, what would I have to contribute to him? Then I think about what the father in the slave cabin scene would have to contribute to his son. I don't imagine he could have ever seen me sitting in this black-owned restaurant, being with a professional like yourself, talking about something like art. The more seriously we take ourselves, the more we've got to sit back and play it off. The contradictions of our present lives are mind blowing-knowing that we came into this country the descendants of slaves and here we are in this black-owned restaurant.
I was sitting in my room. It was evening, and the sun was going down. So I saw three stars coming through there. It may be impossible to imagine what happened in that cabin two hundred years ago. The times have changed, but has the fear, has the oppression? Maybe just the masters have changed and the quarters have changed. What's the difference between a drone working for the Fortune 500 and that slave?
I'm thankful I was able to get into this room. It's located on Evergreen Plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. It is not open to the public. It is the only original sugar plantation with the original slave cabins existing as they did in proximity to the main house. It's just amazing that the structures are still there. There are about 24 cabins, 12 on each side of this massive oak tree line that goes all the way down the middle of the slave community, right behind the main house. These massive trees are hundreds of years old. You can see the main house from the slave cabins. It is the most wonderful home that anyone could imagine. From the cabins to the main house, the contrast is phenomenal. Too bad it is not open to the public. Beyond the slave houses is sugarcane as far as the eye can see.
ROWELL: Will you talk about your photographs as "one of a kind." I assume that you, like the painter and the sculptor, never re-create a photograph.
BAQUET: One of the things that keeps the value of photography down is the reproducibility of the photographic negative. You know, your negatives are a photographer's retirement fund. Because I sell a print today and sell the same print tomorrow. You know, 30 years from now, my grandchildren could be selling prints from that same negative I shot 10 years ago. By hand-coloring a print, I'm taking a photo and turning it into a one-of-a-kind, an original.
The value of a photograph increases when you limit the number of prints you are willing to publish. But what I like about hand-coloring photos is that no two of them come out the same. It increases the value of the work even more. Of course, a photo is a one-tune hitting of the light, controlled and modified, then printed by hand. That the print can be manipulated several ways is true. But hand-coloring that photo makes it into something very special. The colors don't have to be reality. A black and white photograph itself is very abstract. Look around our colorful world. A black and white photograph takes that world and eliminates color as a distraction. You can go straight from the eyes to that image, that person. The personality of the photo woos you, the light and the form. Light, line, form, and shadow: that's what you have to communicate with in a photo. Being able to control color subjectively is also a powerful addition to the medium. It's a contribution. It's a contribution born of my culture, my history, my personality. Translating my feelings by a motion of the hand is a manipulation of something unseen, a statement of my being.
ROWELL: Will you say more about your black and white photographs?
BAQUET: Most of my work is still done in black and white. Most of my exhibited work is black and white. It is not public relations photography. One of the greatest compliments given my work came from a fellow artist named Bob Tannen. I was showing in a group exhibit, and he said the differentiating quality in my work was that it involved a hard-edged risk, usually involving the lifestyle of the subject. I've covered Klan marches from Texas to Georgia. I've documented the lifestyles of children in low-income housing projects. Most of the world tries to avoid my subjects. They attempt to drive by without noticing them. It's very easy to ignore the unwanted, to deny the ugly side of life. But nevertheless, I feel these subjects should not necessarily go unseen. My hope is that my photographs will be an introduction to subjects which need to be confronted, resolved, and settled.
ROWELL: What do you, as a photographer, want most of all to achieve?
BAQUET: Photography can entertain. One of the higher callings of photography is to educate, to inform, and to preserve. Whether it's the Constitution of the United States or a photograph of Abraham Lincoln, both are documents. Both are representations of individual thoughts, representations of what was there, what existed at the time. There is an eternal quality to both. I really do have a passion for image making and for making statements with these images. In fact, I'd like to make more defined statements and translate all these wonderful things I've experienced into a form where other people can see them and appreciate them, and say "Hey, let's not step on that, let's respect it. Let's hold on to it." Whether it's the culture or the person, I hope to pass on something that's honorable, that's dignified and worthy of respect.
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