New Orleans Airlift

Creating Dynamic Portraits in an Inspirational Space: The New Orleans Airlift Music Box Series by Zack Smith

Selfie 101: Your backgrounds and your subjects are equally important! 

Selfie 101: Your backgrounds and your subjects are equally important! 

To me, there are some simple rules that dictate how to make a great portrait. No, it doesn't involve someone famous or strikingly good looking. Maybe in the early stages of one's portrait photography journey it's easy to make good photographs of good looking people, posing, preening, and playing for the camera. You pop off a couple of strobes and WALAH! you have a portrait. For me it's always been much more of a process, but still very simple. 

To make a great portrait you must have Engagement and Environment.

I recently had both of those rules come true in so many ways during my recent collaboration with the folks at The Music Box in New Orleans. I went to the creators of New Orleans Airlift to float my idea of creating one of a kind dynamic portraits of the musical collaborations that took place at their one of a kind venue. The idea was to feature each musical structure and environment as a background story to accompany a portrait of each artist that played there. Lucky for me, every artist that performed this season was down for the idea, and always willing to bring their most creative spirit to each session. As most of you know, this kind of creative spirit is alive and well in New Orleans!

Each portrait I did was based on having a different background featuring the amazing musical structures built at The Music Box. I have sincere and great gratitude for all the creators of this art and Delaney, Taylor, Jay and Leah for making this dream a reality. Without their guidance, continued support, and organization this project would not have happened...

Each portrait session we did had to be done right after the last soundcheck and before the doors opened for the first performance. As you may guess, this very very small tiny window of time is an extremely high pressure stressful time for all parties: sound men turning nobs and fixing monitors, musicians running around trying to put on costumes while testing microphones, organizers setting up frantically while waiting for the dozens to hundreds of people lined up in the 9th Ward neighborhood to be let it. And then there was me...running around with two lights in hand, testing my strobes, composing my scenes and reading and adjusting for the quickly changing ambient light. Yeah, it's about 30 minutes of hustle for 5 minutes of shooting if I am lucky! This is really what being a photographer in New Orleans is all about for me: Creativity Under Pressure! (More BLOG posts on this topic here: Creativity Under Pressure, and Creativity and Diversification in Photography Business )

Learn How to Make Dynamic Portraits like the ones in my series! JOIN my Upcoming Workshop in New Orleans - Art of the Photographic Portrait at The Music Box - Saturday, August 19th

CLICK HERE TO LEARN MORE!

The structures at the Music Box are fully functional art and music installations.

The structures at the Music Box are fully functional art and music installations.

The user must stand inside this piece, hold the rope...sway and move to the chimes.

The user must stand inside this piece, hold the rope...sway and move to the chimes.

Each installation gives me ideas to create a unique environment for my subject. I had Taylor help me navigate the pulleys and wires of this piece to install one of my radio transmitted strobes which I gelled orange for the Norah Jones/Tank and the Bangas shoot.

Each installation gives me ideas to create a unique environment for my subject. I had Taylor help me navigate the pulleys and wires of this piece to install one of my radio transmitted strobes which I gelled orange for the Norah Jones/Tank and the Bangas shoot.

Photographer Lemar Arceneaux and I trying to figure out if this mirror could add some dynamics and depth to the image. It didn't..and we moved on!

Photographer Lemar Arceneaux and I trying to figure out if this mirror could add some dynamics and depth to the image. It didn't..and we moved on!

If you haven't been to The Music Box, then it might be hard to know what I am talking about so I will show you in photos...but first: Each background you see, each structure in each portrait...is able to be played. Yes, played by a musician or a performer, or the wind and the rain. The art pieces are drums, sound machines, rotating dual speak phone booths, wind chimes, and much much more. The music that is made at The Music Box is like no other music made anywhere else. 

I had both elements of a great portrait - the Environment of The Music Box and the Engagement of the artists there to collaborate. I hope you enjoy, and I URGE YOU to visit The New Orleans Airlift's website to see their upcoming events and attend a performance. It will change the way you look at how music can be made AND enjoyed. I was honored to be able to work with each artists performing at the Music Box as they gave me their time (which was in short supply) and especially their honest, collaborative, engagement. 

One of our first shoots was with Gogol Bordello and New Orleans band Debauch. I really only had 5 minutes to setup, not even knowing if the band would even have time to pose. Lucky for me they had exactly 60 seconds. 

One of our first shoots was with Gogol Bordello and New Orleans band Debauch. I really only had 5 minutes to setup, not even knowing if the band would even have time to pose. Lucky for me they had exactly 60 seconds. 

Lost Bayou Ramblers, Langhorn Slim, Rickie Lee Jones and Spider Stacy serenade the Music Box...

Lost Bayou Ramblers, Langhorn Slim, Rickie Lee Jones and Spider Stacy serenade the Music Box...

Rickie Lee Jones uses the pay phone on site to sing through it's dual spinning speakers...

Rickie Lee Jones uses the pay phone on site to sing through it's dual spinning speakers...

Norah Jones collaborated with New Orleans group Tank and the Bangas for a very special evening. You can see here, I used my backlight to create a warm glow amidst the cool twilight night.

Norah Jones collaborated with New Orleans group Tank and the Bangas for a very special evening. You can see here, I used my backlight to create a warm glow amidst the cool twilight night.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy performed with the Roots of Music and just watching him direct and perform and rehearse with a show time energy was amazing.

Bonnie "Prince" Billy performed with the Roots of Music and just watching him direct and perform and rehearse with a show time energy was amazing.

New Orleans' Roots of Music

New Orleans' Roots of Music

The Roots of Music at The Music Box

The Roots of Music at The Music Box

Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Tredafilka, The Bitchin Bajas, and Roots of Music pose in yet another epic symmetry at the Music Box!

Bonnie "Prince" Billy, Tredafilka, The Bitchin Bajas, and Roots of Music pose in yet another epic symmetry at the Music Box!

Mike Dillon brought his New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Consortium to the Music Box which featured Simon Berz, Mark Southerland, Clint Maedgen, Tiffany Lamson, Andrew Bohren, Brian Haas and many more!

Mike Dillon brought his New Orleans Punk Rock Percussion Consortium to the Music Box which featured Simon Berz, Mark Southerland, Clint Maedgen, Tiffany Lamson, Andrew Bohren, Brian Haas and many more!

Having known and photographed Mike Dillon for a few years, I was comfortable getting to the rehearsal early and documenting them up close. I was also able to setup earlier to do individual portraits, something I had never done until this show. It had been suggested to me by Jay Pennington of the New Orleans Airlift. Now it's something I do each show...thanks Jay!

Having known and photographed Mike Dillon for a few years, I was comfortable getting to the rehearsal early and documenting them up close. I was also able to setup earlier to do individual portraits, something I had never done until this show. It had been suggested to me by Jay Pennington of the New Orleans Airlift. Now it's something I do each show...thanks Jay!

Drummer Paul Thidbodeax drums high in the trees.

Drummer Paul Thidbodeax drums high in the trees.

Tiffany Lamson of GIVERS rehearses with Mike Dillon's NOPRPC.

Tiffany Lamson of GIVERS rehearses with Mike Dillon's NOPRPC.

BEFORE......Music Box Installation

BEFORE......Music Box Installation

AFTER - with Dustan Louque! I decided to crop those images above to show you how I approach each setting at The Music Box. First i find the right installation and decide if it makes  a good background. I then experiment with some lighting, then add the subject! ENVIRONMENT + ENGAGEMENT - THERE YOU HAVE IT!

AFTER - with Dustan Louque! I decided to crop those images above to show you how I approach each setting at The Music Box. First i find the right installation and decide if it makes  a good background. I then experiment with some lighting, then add the subject! ENVIRONMENT + ENGAGEMENT - THERE YOU HAVE IT!

ANOTHER epic group portrait at The Music Box! Dustan Louque presented "Dub Down Babylon" which featured Layla McCalla, Nels Cline, Blato Zlato and many more...

ANOTHER epic group portrait at The Music Box! Dustan Louque presented "Dub Down Babylon" which featured Layla McCalla, Nels Cline, Blato Zlato and many more...

Preservation Hall Jazz Band pose in the setting sun of the last show at the Music Box this season...till next season!

Preservation Hall Jazz Band pose in the setting sun of the last show at the Music Box this season...till next season!

 

A little bit about New Orleans Airlift, taken from their site:

New Orleans Airlift is an artist-driven initiative that collaborates and creates alongside the artists and communities they support.

Airlift was founded in 2008 by musician and artist manager Jay Pennington and Delaney Martin, a multi-media installation artist, as a response to the unparalleled destruction of Hurricane Katrina and its devastating aftermath which left local artists, like all New Orleanians, struggling for their lives and livelihoods. Jay and Delaney recognized a need for new audiences who could support these artists as they rebuilt their city. They dreamt up a one-time project that took city artists to Berlin and called it The New Orleans Airlift after the Berlin Airlift of WWII. Other exchange projects that used an import/export model and a multidisciplinary approach soon followed and the name stuck.

Airlift programming highlights the city's underground art and under-the-radar artists, transporting the dynamic street culture, living folk culture and growing contemporary arts scene of New Orleans to far-flung locations around the world for exhibitions, workshops, festivals, performances, and collaborative projects. Airlift also brings influential artists from abroad to participate in collaborative endeavors with local artists in this special community. They believe that collaboration between artists and across communities shares resources, empowers learning and unites disparate groups in common and powerful goals.

"New Orleans is the last great bastion of living folk culture in the United states. Airlift projects honor tradition alongside innovation, leading our artists, culture and communities in meaningful new directions."