Photographer Zack Smith opens a show of his backstage photos Saturday night at St. Lawrence.
This Voodoo Music Experience was the first year since 2008 that Zack Smith was not backstage behind the Preservation Hall Stage with a makeshift photo booth and a camera or three. The end of that stage after Voodoo 2012 also meant the end of Smith’s space. One year, he had a sheet of plywood on a couple of sawhorses supporting a handful of cameras, some that shot to digital, some to film, all with different formats. His booth sometimes had distinctive wallpaper or backdrops; others had a tree or wide spot where he could catch musicians when they finished their sets for a quick portrait.
He collected the best of those photos in a book titled Exit Stage Right, and some of the highlights will be on display at St. Lawrence starting Saturday night. They were briefly on display at Preservation Hall last October, but because the hall wasn’t kept open like a gallery, the photos were primarily seen when by visitors there for shows.
One of the strengths of Smith’s work in general and the Exit Stage Right photos specifically is the inclusive breadth of his subjects. He shoots whoever will sit or stand for him. One year, he ran me in front of his camera, followed by Antigravity’s Leo McGovern; another year, he shot me in his booth looking as if I was ready to crush him for interrupting me. But over the years his booths were also visited by Walter “Wolfman” Washington and Marva Wright, Jim James, the Noisician Coalition, and numerous incarnations of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
For him, the photos document a moment in time and the people who played roles in the New Orleans music community during that time, and those who passed through the backstage of the Preservation Hall stage in those years.
“You can see creative types like Clint Maedgen who you know is going to evolve into something different tomorrow,” Smith says. He has mixed feelings about the end of Preservation Hall’s association with the stage and his own photo booth. As much as he enjoyed shooting, “I’ve got so many projects going on that don’t end,” Smith says. “This one ended.”
Smith trusted happenstance to supply his subjects, and in most instances, he only shot one or two frames. He wasn’t trying to get perfect portraits, but he got a lot of very excellent ones because he shot many of them on film instead of digital, he thinks. “I don’t think the subjects react to me the same as they do with something that actually costs money when you press the trigger, something you have to go process,” he says. “It takes them back to the place where they’re performing, where the words and music mean something.”
For him, the act of photographing the subject was as much about a moment as a shot. “We were in a noisy environment,” Smith says. “What I tried to create was a fraction of a second of quiet time for the subject and myself.”
“Exit Stage Right” opens Saturday night from 7 to 9 p.m. at St. Lawrence (219 N. Peters St.) with music by DJ Otto.