Bernard Hermann spent four years in New Orleans photographing black street life — then left the city, never to return.
Gambit photographer Cheryl Gerber tracked him down in Paris.
The only thing better than getting my book Life and Death in the Big Easy published was discovering another book that unmasked New Orleans' African-American culture at an earlier time — in a jawdroppingly beautiful fashion. That's how I felt when I first saw Bernard Hermann's The Good Times Rolled: Black New Orleans 1979-1982. My publisher at UL Press showed me Hermann's book after the company decided to release my book and his book on the same day because they complemented each other.
I was familiar with the photography of New Orleans' longtime street chroniclers Michael P. Smith, Syndey Byrd, Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick, but discovering Hermann was like finding a long-lost treasure. I became his "No. 1 groupie," a term he coined after I emailed him gushing about his book.
Earlier this year, I flew to Paris to meet him — the photographer who spent four years deep in the belly of black New Orleans during the same years I was a cheerleader in high school on the Northshore. When Hermann explored New Orleans, Ernest N. "Dutch" Morial had just been elected the city's first black mayor, the police were striking during Mardi Gras and the Ku Klux Klan was holding rallies with David Duke.
Hermann started his career in the 1960s as a darkroom boy-turned-photojournalist for France-Soir, arguably France's most important newspaper at the time. His work eventually took him all round the globe, but it wasn't until he landed in New Orleans in 1979 that he found his greatest subject. "In New Orleans, I was spellbound, entranced, zombified by some mysterious spell," he writes in his book. "I remained mired in its bayou for four long years.''
When Hermann returned to Paris with what he calls "the achievement of my lifetime, the love affair of a lifetime, my own flesh and blood,'' his euphoria was short-lived. The French art world had not been interested in photographs of African-Americans since the civil rights movement. Then came Hurricane Katrina. Hermann watched the news every day and cried as the memories of all those years ago came flooding back.
On the 10th anniversary of Katrina, his magnum opus finally came to life, published in France by Albin Michel and in Louisiana by UL Press. Longtime New Orleans writer Jason Berry contributed the preface.
"My self-assigned goal was to capture the last traditions still alive in the very heart of the black community, far from the French Quarter, even if I liked Preservation Hall, away from Uptown, even if I liked Tipitina's, away from the Jazz Fest, which I liked too,'' Hermann says. "But my purpose was to show the real black street culture, far from the tourism industry, in its own sweat and on its own turf, as well as some aspects of the daily life of the old 'back o' town,' referring to Treme, the 6th and 7th Wards and 9th Ward."
Hermann was right about the city — and the culture — changing. When Hermann was here, second lines were attended mostly by black residents in black neighborhoods. Now the parades draw locals and visitors from all over, and some Mardi Gras Indians appear regularly at festivals and other events.
"I knew I would never fret the warm years I spent in New Orleans, yet I felt no sadness in leaving. Rather, I thanked my guardian angel and my mojo for allowing me to escape its quicksand." — Bernard Hermann
But Hermann had access to Mardi Gras Indian tribes during a time when very few photographers did. "In those days, it was quite dangerous, and tourists didn't venture into those neighborhoods," Hermann says.
During one of his first attempts to photograph Mardi Gras Indians, he recalls being hit by what he believes was a tomahawk. "But I think I hung around so long, some members of the White Eagles gang felt sorry for me and let me take photos,'' he says, chuckling. His French accent didn't hurt, he adds.
Some of the most powerful images in The Good Times Rolled were taken at Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola. He says his "good old boy" mustache and ginger hair helped. (Hermann still sports the mustache, but the ginger hair has become mostly white.) "Me and the warden had the same mustache,'' he says, laughing. "Warden whatshisname just let me walk around without guards." In the chapter titled "Dead Man Walking," the photos show prisoners at work, play and quiet reflection, as well as "Old Sparky," Angola's electric chair. Hermann also had full access to the New Orleans morgue under former Coroner Dr. Frank Minyard.
The photographer makes much of death in this book, but life is portrayed beautifully as well: photos of Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club members, pimps, women in hair rollers, churches, second lines and laborers on the waterfront.
"I really wished I could have been in New Orleans earlier," he says. "I concentrated my photography on vintage aspects of the traditional black New Orleans life, endangered by the acceleration of changing times, fading away so quickly in front of my own eyes."
Hermann loved New Orleans singer-pianist Professor Longhair (who is photographed in his casket), didn't care for local R&B artist James Booker (whom he photographed on a stoop smoking a cigarette), he loved drummer Benny Jones of the Treme Brass Band (who appears on the cover as a young man covered in birthday pinned-greenbacks), he knew renowned photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, and there was a woman he left behind in New Orleans who loved him.
I met Hermann at his eighth-floor flat on the left bank of the Seine River overlooking Notre Dame Cathedral. He records what he sees from his window using a camera with 500 millimeter and 1000 mm lenses and has published a book of such shots, Paris, km00 Photographies d'un Voyage en Chambre.
My mission was to convince Hermann to return to New Orleans, but he insists he never will come back — that when he left, he left for good. "It would be too sad for me to return," he says. "It was already fading then." He described leaving the city without telling a soul goodbye, feeling it slip away as the plane's landing gear retracted.
As I left, he gave me this advice: "Photograph the environment. Get in with the scientists and the Army Corps of Engineers and photograph everything. It will be important work, because it will be gone soon.''