Most photographers station themselves in front of music festival stages. Zack Smith’s preferred vantage point is backstage.
From 2001 to 2016, Smith, a commercial photographer by profession, orchestrated behind-the-scenes photo sessions at festivals in New Orleans and southwest Louisiana. Using large-format film cameras and makeshift studios, he shot hundreds of musician portraits.
The project, Smith said, was guided by the question, “How can I create a quiet space in the chaos? I wanted to create a document of where we are as a culture and a people, and where the musicians are.”
Seventy or so of his backstage images are featured in “Exit Stage Right: Zack Smith’s Festival Portraits,” a new exhibit at the New Orleans Jazz Museum inside the Old U.S. Mint that opened last weekend and is scheduled to run at least through the spring.
Though his work has been displayed at the Contemporary Arts Center and the New Orleans Museum of Art, this is the first large-scale exhibit devoted to Smith’s musician portraiture.
Separate rooms on the Old U.S. Mint’s second floor feature backstage portraits from the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience and Chaz Fest. Two additional rooms display portraits from the Ponderosa Stomp, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, Geronimo Fest and elsewhere.
In each room, clusters of large prints, either color or black and white, are mounted on the walls, mostly without the white matting and black frames of traditional photography exhibits.
“The sense you get is you’re surrounded by people in this moment in time,” Smith said. “I’m pleased with the way it turned out.”
Originally from Lafayette, Smith landed in New Orleans in 2000 after a stint at LSU. By then, he’d found his calling: taking pictures and telling stories.
At first, he noted, “you want to shoot everything – clouds, mushrooms, people.” By the time he arrived in New Orleans, he’d narrowed his focus to live music.
He hauled around his portfolio to local music clubs, introducing himself and his work. He soon became a fixture at Tipitina’s, the House of Blues and other venues, spending countless late nights clicking away.
He got to know the principals at Superfly Presents, the production company that started out staging nighttime concerts during Mardi Gras. When Superfly launched the massive Bonnaroo Music Festival in Tennessee in 2002, Smith was hired to shoot the festival.
He also shot for the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival and the French Quarter Festival, even as he created branding campaigns for commercial corporate clients and conducted photography workshops.
During the 2001 Jazz Fest, he hung a bedsheet from a tree in front of a friend’s house near the Sauvage Street entrance to the Fair Grounds and asked passers-by to stop for a picture.
That was the genesis of his festival portraiture project. Taking portraits of musicians backstage replaced photographing them onstage.
“My interest evolved,” Smith said. “I was less an observer of music and more a director of portraiture.”
His backstage photo booth was a regular feature at Chaz Fest, the spring festival staged in the Ninth Ward by local acts not invited to Jazz Fest.
For several years at Voodoo Fest in City Park, he set up behind the stage curated by Preservation Hall. Weeks before the festival, he’d reach out to bands scheduled to perform on that stage, inviting them to pose either before or after their performances.
Smith is also a musician; he’s been the drummer in local indie rock band Rotary Downs since 2003. For several years, he both performed with Rotary Downs at Voodoo and shot portraits. The band also played late-night club gigs throughout Voodoo weekend.
“Those were really, really tough years,” Smith said. “Not a lot of sleep.”
Designing and building the backstage studio, renting a trailer to transport it to the festival site, then spending multiple days taking the pictures – it was a labor-intensive process.
“When you’re there, it’s supposed to feel chill,” Smith said. “But it’s a lot to make each of those happen.”
After a few years, musicians started seeking out Smith and his photo booth. More and more requested he take their pictures before the gig, so they wouldn’t look sweaty.
“I challenged myself to make it so when I was at the same place two or three years in a row, people would get excited: ‘You going to be there again?’”
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While shooting the early Bonnaroo festivals for Superfly, he watched renowned rock photographer Danny Clinch work, as Clinch manned his own elaborate backstage photo studio at Bonnaroo. Like Smith, Clinch is a photographer/musician. So when Clinch’s Tangiers Blues Band performed at Voodoo Fest one year, Smith shot a portrait of them – a full-circle moment.
A couple years ago, Smith approached New Orleans Jazz Museum music curator David Kunian about possibly mounting an exhibit at the museum. Kunian was familiar with Smith’s festival photography project: as the emcee at Chaz Fest, Kunian had been photographed multiple times by Smith.
The Jazz Museum is certainly supportive of music photography. “Great-ish Hits,” an exhibit of veteran New Orleans photographer Rick Olivier’s music-themed work, has been open since September 2020.
Kunian helped sort through hundreds of Smith’s photos to curate “Exit Stage Right.” Its opening was delayed twice because of COVID.
“It’s not been without a lot of stops and starts,” Smith said. “Where we are right now (with the pandemic), you’ve got to keep planning and working as hard as you can for what you love, but know that it can all go away. There’s no sure thing. The fact that things are on walls makes me feel better.”
His last backstage festival portrait session to date was at the 2016 Chaz Fest. That December, his daughter was born; he now has a toddler son as well.
Parenthood has consumed the free time he once devoted to planning, building and staffing his festival photo shoots.
“I’m watching the world evolve through my kids,” he said. “That’s where I want to be right now.”
The New Orleans Jazz Museum, 400 Esplanade Avenue, is open Tuesday to Sunday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $6 for students, seniors and active military members.
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