Michael P. Smith (1937–2008), a New Orleans native and award-winning professional freelance photographer, spent a lifetime capturing the music, culture and folklife of New Orleans and Louisiana. He was well known for documenting New Orleans social club parades and jazz funerals, neighborhood Mardi Gras traditions, spiritual church ceremonies, and many of the city and state's renowned jazz, blues rhythm and blues, and gospel musicians. Smith photographed at every New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival from its inception in 1970 until his retirement in 2004, when he was honored with a major grandstand exhibition and photo kiosks placed around the fairgrounds.
Smith's work has been presented at the Museum of American History (Smithsonian Institution), the International Center for Photography in New York, and the LeRoy Neiman Gallery at Columbia University, as well as numerous other museums, galleries, and jazz festivals in America and Europe. A major retrospective of his work was presented in 1999 at the Contemporary Arts Center in New Orleans.
Smith's photographs are in the permanent collections of the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and, locally, the Historic New Orleans Collection, the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art, and the Louisiana State Museum.
Michael P. Smith photographs grace the covers of many CDs and record albums; illustrate numerous books and magazine articles published in America and Europe; and are in continual demand for documentary films produced at home and abroad. Early in his career, he received two Photographer's Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and his prints have toured worldwide through the United States Information Agency (USIA) and the Louisiana State Museum. Professionally, he was a location assignment photographer for Black Star, the noted New York booking agency, for over 20 years. He photographed in Cuba on three different occasions, documenting laborers, music in the streets, and folk religions rarely captured on film.
Smith's work is represented through five photography books including Spirit World: Pattern in the Expressive Folk Culture of African American New Orleans; A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans Music; New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History; Jazz Fest Memories; and Mardi Gras Indians. The latter is a visual and sociological history of the unique masking and musical traditions still alive in New Orleans' older black neighborhoods.
In the years prior to his death in 2008, Smith was honored with numerous awards. He received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities in 2002 and was named Music Photographer of the Year by Offbeat magazine. In 2004, he received a Mayor's Arts Award from the Arts Council of New Orleans and a Clarence John Laughlin Lifetime Achievement Award from the New Orleans/Gulf South chapter of the American Society of Media Photographers (ASMP). In 2005, he received the Delgado Society Award (New Orleans Museum of Art), the first photographer to be so honored.
In the spring of 2007, the Michael P. Smith collection of negatives, prints, papers and ephemera was acquired by The Historic New Orleans Collection, along with the copyright to his work. The Michael P. Smith Collection is housed at the Williams Research Center and will be available to the public at a future date.
"The camera is an extension of my knowledge of the inner workings of the community that I have come to understand over a twenty-five year period. It's my art, my subjective view of the world I'm experiencing." ~ Michael P. Smith, 1993
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