The numbers are impressive: some 125 graduations, 50 new student and faculty convocations, thousands of hours shooting photos in classrooms, not to mention alumni parties, athletic events and pep rallies. It all adds up to 25 years that photographer Harold Baquet has spent capturing every aspect of life on Loyola University’s Uptown campus.
If those numbers don’t impress you, how about this one: 300,000 of his images are stored on the university’s computer server.
Baquet said those files date back to about 1999, which means there are 10 years of his tenure as the university’s official photographer that he’s not even counting.
About the only things Baquet probably didn’t photograph himself are the events where he was presented with three of the university’s highest honors: Loyola’s Coadjutor Optimus award in 2002, recognizing a top staff member; the St. Sebastian award in 2008, recognizing outstanding efforts on behalf of Loyola athletics; and the President’s Medal in 2010.
Now, Baquet, 56, is preparing to once again step out from behind the camera, as he leaves the job he has held for 25 years. He plans to retire at the end of December.
“I’ve had a blast, man,” he said, reflecting for a moment on the career that has taken him around the world but kept him firmly rooted in his hometown. He said the nature of university life, with natural beginnings and endings, has kept him engaged in his work over the years.
“Academia is so cyclical. It brings with it the new energy and enthusiasm of the freshmen each fall and the finality of the graduating class each spring,” he said. “It’s young people having the time of their lives, and at the height of their energy, which I love. It’s really a study in anthropology.”
Colleagues say the friendships that Baquet has made over the years, either by pointing his lens at someone to take their picture or by engaging them in conversations on a wide range of interests, make it hard to imagine Loyola’s campus without him.
“Nobody can replace Harold. He’s entirely unique and special,” said Mary Degnan, the university’s publications manager. “He really is one of those people who gets his energy from being around others and being a part of what they are experiencing.”
Communications professor Lisa Martin has helped showcase Baquet’s work by organizing several special events highlighting his immense portfolio and giving him a chance to speak about his photographs. The university also staged a retrospective exhibit, to coincide with the publication of a book of his photos, and sponsored a talk he gave to mark Loyola’s centennial in 2012.
“You go into Harold’s office and look at his pictures and realize he knows the history of Loyola like he knows the history of New Orleans, like he knows the history of America and the world, and is able to incorporate all that into one fascinating story,” Martin said.
Some of those emotional photos are from Baquet’s life before he joined the university, which included years as the official city photographer for Mayors Ernest “Dutch” Morial and Sidney Barthelemy and many years documenting civil rights struggles and the social and cultural life of the city.
Favorite photos include Morial feeding birthday cake to Fats Domino and Miles Davis handing a trumpet to a young Wynton Marsalis. There also are portraits of Muhammad Ali, the Mannings, Allen Toussaint and Big Chief Alison “Tootie” Montana, as well as scenes from street celebrations and barbershops, important centers of New Orleans’ African-American neighborhood life.
It all came quite naturally to Baquet, a Tremé and 7th Ward native, St. Augustine High School graduate and member of a family that includes cousins Wayne Baquet, owner of Li’l Dizzy’s restaurant, and Dean Baquet, executive editor of The New York Times.
A devout Catholic, Baquet has turned to his faith and his family, including his extended Loyola family, for strength and inspiration during the past six years as he battled cancer. Focusing on it full time is one reason he has decided to retire.
He said he and his wife, public relations professional Cheron Brylski, have had to travel back and forth to Houston for treatments and surgeries so many times that juggling work schedules became challenging. But when he thinks back to the initial prognosis that he had just six months to live, he remains hopeful.
“I have been totally amazed at his attitude,” Degnan said. “He has been so inspirational. He’s always chipper, positive. Working as closely as we do, I can kind of tell when he isn’t feeling well or is tired. But he really does keep a positive attitude.”
Friends and colleagues remain in awe of his attitude and spirit and the fact that he rarely puts the camera down, even when other matters have demanded his attention.
“Harold is the epitome of what I think everyone should strive to achieve in their lives: a balanced dedication to work, family and spirituality, as well as an energetic perseverance that is quite remarkable,” said Loyola’s president, the Rev. Kevin Wildes, SJ. “He will truly be missed.”