As a gritty wind blew across the Congo Square Stage on Sunday morning, sax player Emile Hall walked forward and pointed at a tall photographer standing at the lip of the stage, clicking his shutter.
Eric Waters took his right hand off his trusty camera and gave Hall a thumbs-up. “We’ve known each other forever,” he said.
This kind of back and forth happened all day, every day, as Waters, 67, moved through the Fair Grounds, getting bear hugs and kisses from the crowd and from fellow shutterbugs. Musicians on stage waved and signaled to the man who has captured their New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival performances for 20 years.
Until she was struck by illness a few years ago, another quintessential photographer was also a fixture in Jazz Fest photo pits. Clad in voluminous flowery skirts and blouses, with her long hair often tied up in loose braids and camera bags dangling in every direction off her shoulders, Syndey Byrd, 69, and her assistant du jour stood out from the typical sweaty scrum of fest photographers, most of them men carelessly clad in khaki, shorts, ragged T-shirts and caps.
“Syndey had the New Orleans muumuu on, free-flowing, with cases, straps and cameras flowing off. She looked like she was going out for a picnic with her cameras,” photographer Zack Smith said.
Most photographers are also in a rush because they have to file their images with editors or post them online all day long. Again, not Byrd.
“She’d come into the pit and settle herself down, unstrapping herself, setting up her cameras and then shooting,” said photographer Scott Salzman, who has a picture of her sitting casually on the Jazz Fest photo-pit bench, smoking a cigarette.
Though a parade of talented photojournalists comes through Jazz Fest, Waters and Byrd are some of the longest-running. Both are renowned New Orleans street photographers, so their images from Jazz Fest are an extension of what they capture around town.
But they approached their craft from different directions. Byrd, the grande dame in Frida Kahlo outfits, gained access to Mardi Gras krewes and Indian chiefs, musicians and Cajun cowboys. But in crowds, she was less concerned with social niceties and more with her camera, while Waters, an unassuming guy from the 7th Ward, greets everyone and has become both the personal friend and go-to photographer of many Indians, artists, and social aid and pleasure club members.
The two photographed some of the same aspects of the city’s African-American culture, which is celebrated during Jazz Fest. But official Jazz Fest photographer Girard Mouton III sees Byrd generally as an outsider to that world and Waters as an insider.
Mouton, who, like Waters, is a black man from the 7th Ward, said he bases that assessment not on race but on familiarity with cultural traditions. “Eric has an intimacy with the culture that I must admit I don’t have,” Mouton said, whereas Byrd was a “photographer who documented.”
The city’s photography record is richer for both of their perspectives, Mouton said.
“The outsider’s eye is just as critical as the insider’s,” he said. “The insider may be able to lay out the history and may be able to explain detail, such as why a button is located on a piece of clothing. But an outsider has a different advantage: She may be able to see something that the insider takes for granted.”
Raised in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Byrd would often joke that aliens had dropped her there.
“She just wanted to escape it,” Mouton said. As a result, “New Orleans represented this exotic other world. She has always been a curious voyeur, an outsider in that sense,” he said.
Both photographers are currently displaced from the world they document. After a fraudulent contractor took his money and left his flooded house on North Rocheblave Street unrepaired, Waters commutes to photography gigs in New Orleans from post-Katrina exile in Atlanta. He hopes to return, eventually.
Byrd’s chances of returning are unclear. The New Orleans Musicians’ Clinic, which is helping to care for her, notes officially that, “after several years battling the cruelty of dementia, Syndey now resides 15 minutes away from her studio in a skilled nursing facility, unable to recall her stunning legacy.”
‘Not a lucky shot’
There is the photo of a grieving Lois Nelson dancing on top of the coffin of her teenage son Darnell “D-Boy” Andrews and the shot of Oliver “Squirky Man” Hunter, captured in his signature move, straddle splits executed high in the air. Both are classic Waters images.
“That picture Eric took of Squirky Man, I hate that photo,” Mouton said. “It’s better than any picture of a second line I’ve ever taken. It’s perfect.”
The image also was snapped at a perfect time, by a photographer who knew Hunter’s jumps and reflexively knew when he’d be at his apex, Zack Smith said.
“That’s not a lucky shot,” Smith said. “Eric knew exactly what he was doing.”
Smith admires much of Waters’ work.
“The way people look at Eric — the way they present themselves, show their feathers or their new hat, the way they pose or don’t pose — it’s like they’re being photographed by a cousin that they see every Sunday,” Smith said. “There’s a comfort that exists with Eric’s shots that I only dream of getting.”
Waters gives a typically humble response, summing up his attitude toward his work by quoting scientist Louis Pasteur: “Luck favors the prepared mind,” he said, simply. A former St. Augustine High School and Dillard University basketball player, he still moves through the festival pits and down the city’s streets like an athlete, always alert to what’s happening around him and able to walk backwards for hours at a time to get the best shot.
Waters’ first job out of college was as an accountant with Flint-Goodridge Hospital. But his avocation was always photography. He was mentored by Marion James Porter, the official photographer for The Louisiana Weekly, for black churches and the black union.
“He shot literally everything,” said Waters, who had been taking casual pictures with a Polaroid camera until college friends, civil rights activists Jerome Smith and Rudy Lombard, told him he should get serious. They introduced him to Porter, whose office was in the International Longshoremen’s Association building on South Claiborne, a civil rights hub of the time. He observed Porter in the darkroom and on the streets, where Porter took one of the finest second-line images Waters has seen to this day, a circa-1950s image of a double amputee with leather covers on his stumps walking alongside a horse-drawn hearse. To Waters, it captures the commitment of those bereaved. He too began to document the community around him.
After Smith introduced Waters to Tootie Montana, big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe, in the 1960s, Waters was hooked. He tried to sew a patch himself once but ended up bleeding badly from needles plunging into his fingers. Some gently advised that he might be better off sticking to his camera, and he did, documenting not only Indians in suits on Mardi Gras Day and St. Joseph’s Night but also sewing. In recent years, as Indians have copyrighted suits to prevent photographers from profiting from images of their art, Waters has worked alongside Indians to make sure he’s on the right side of the issue.
“Until you watch someone sew, you have no idea what goes into it,” Waters said, recalling how he’d once watched Montana’s wife, Joyce Montana, lift a tiny bead. “The whole bead was a little bit bigger than a pinhead, and she took the point of the needle and picked up the bead through the hole. That’s how dexterous she is. She did that over and over. I couldn’t do that with a magnifying glass and a tweezers,” he said.
Waters and his girlfriend, Charlene Braud, had left town for vacation the week before Katrina, and so he had no chance to salvage anything from the floodwater that enveloped his 7th Ward house, where he’d lived since age 5. By the time he was able to return a month and half later with an insurance adjuster, the roof had collapsed and the floors had buckled to the point where the door had to be pried open with a crowbar. All Waters saw through his lens that day was mold, devastation and stench. He still is reluctant to talk about it.
“So many people had so much more loss than I had,” he said. “A friend of mine lost his camera, every single picture he ever took — and his son. So I have to look at myself and feel fortunate.”
In 2008, he ran into his friend musician Dr. Michael White, whose music archive and clarinet collection also had been deluged. White suggested photographing his ruined instruments, which had been carefully stacked in White’s shed by the musicians who had gutted his house.
It was the beginning of a project that resulted in “The Solemn Sounds of Silence,” a book of Waters’ art photographs taken of the rusty and ruined instruments in their velvet cases. “The instruments no longer sound, but they can still speak,” White said of the images.
But Waters took the clarinets with him to his exile and so the photographs were mostly taken in Atlanta, where Waters and Braud still reside. “There’s nothing to shoot in Atlanta,” Waters said, so he tries to come back as often as he can.
‘An absolute bohemian’
Not long after Katrina, a friend decided to do Byrd a favor and haul her toxic refrigerator to the trash. Byrd found out, was alarmed and got someone to rescue the appliance, which was filled largely with undeveloped film. “The crispers were filled to the brim with film rolls,” said her longtime editor David Johnson, who published a steady stream of her work in Cultural Vistas, the magazine of the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Byrd attended Ole Miss, moved to New York City, then traveled by car across the country before moving in the mid-1970s to New Orleans, where she studied for a decade with Ernst Haas, a legendary color photographer. She spent most of her career shooting color slides. It’s a difficult medium because it has only a small margin of error, but it gave her work a distinct richness, what Salzman called “a Kodachrome punch.”
Still, Byrd always photographed faster than she could afford to develop, Johnson said. And once the photos or slides were developed, she never filed them quickly. When she did, the images were categorized with no chronology but “by whatever theme her mind made up: flower, musicians, temples,” Johnson said. “Her collection is not very well organized. But it is so richly lush. I would spend hours there, just getting lost in her work.”
The work extended far from New Orleans, Johnson said, noting that friends or benefactors often paid for Byrd to travel as a photographer to places such as Haiti, China ad France.
When Byrd took a holiday portrait of Fats Domino for his “Christmas Gumbo” CD cover, she brought along her dog, a small white bichon frise named Gus, plunked a Santa hat on his head and set him on the right knee of Domino, who posed for the photo talking on a vintage phone, seated on his vintage Cadillac couch. When celebrated photographer and friend Herman Leonard, who called Byrd “a critical part” of New Orleans culture, photographed Byrd, she posed on top of her satin-sheeted bed, holding her dogs.
But her filing system never lent itself to commercial success, Johnson said.
“Syndey has full throttle artistic vision, but she has no room for business in that vision,” he said.
Writer Jason Berry, a close friend and collaborator, agreed. “She is gifted and has such an intuitive brilliance as an image maker. But she is just the worst businessperson imaginable,” said Berry, who last saw her about a year ago, when they went through some of her work because she was having memory issues and needed help identifying people in some of her photographs.
Berry recalled times when Byrd would call him, broke, and ask him to buy photographs from her for $200, a bargain-basement price.
“I’d say, ‘Girl, you shouldn’t sell photographs to anyone for $200. Let me loan you $100,’ ” he said.
Then the next week, Berry would check on her, concerned, because she had mentioned that she was about to be foreclosed upon. “So I’d call her and she’d say, ‘I’m going to Switzerland.’ She is an absolute bohemian.”
Berry believes that her photographs capture New Orleans unlike those of many others.
“As a color imagist, she stands on her own plateau,” he said. “She has an artistic touch that would stir envy in most photographers, and she has a refined sense of color. She is almost like a painter with a lens.”