Robbie McClaran – Mardi Gras in 1979

Interviews with Photographers,Random March 13, 2014 3:39 pm

When Robbie sent out a link to shots of Mardi Gras that he took in 1979 (the year that the New Orleans Police Department staged a strike which led to the cancellation of the Mardi Gras festivities but did not hold the locals and few remaining tourists from partying) I loved the moments he captured, and seeing some of his earliest work. I wanted to find out more about his experience.. See the rest of the images, here.

When and why did you chose to move to New Orleans?

In 1978 I had just finished two years studying photography at the Visual Studies Workshop. I spent a few months knocking around Europe with a backpack and when I ran out of money limped back to Rochester. It was January of ’79 and I still had that wandering spirit. I also wasn’t ready to face the brutal upstate NY winter. One night I had a vivid dream I was walking through the French Quarter. The next morning when I woke up, I knew that’s where I was going and two days later I landed in New Orleans. I had my backpack, camera bag and a couple hundred bucks in my pocket. Didn’t know anyone but made my way to the French Quarter and there I was.

In a few days I found a slave quarters apartment on Esplanade and Royal, got a job working at an audio visual company, setting up slide projectors, etc. for conventions at the Super Dome and immersed myself in New Orleans.

I fell deeply in love with the city and the culture and decided I would live there the rest of my life. But I had some unfinished work do at Visual Studies, a book project I wanted to produce, plus all of my belongings were there in storage. So after six months I made the hard decision to return to Rochester, intending on being there only a few months before returning to New Orleans for good.

Of course life doesn’t always work out as planned. As it turned out I only lived in New Orleans for 6 or 7 months, but I like to say I jammed 5 years worth of living into those short months. I’ve been back for several visits but not to live. I still have a deep love for the city and haven’t yet given up completely my hope to return someday.

What was the vibe like in the city those days? It sounds almost too easy that you were able to get a job and in apartment so quickly, it sounds like magic – do you think all that happened due to your eagerness or the times?

Well it’s more likely dumb luck that I found the job and apartment, rather than magic. But the vibe for me was magic. It’s such a sensual place. I remember laying in bed one night with the window open. I could hear rain gently falling against the leaves of a banana tree outside. From off in the distance the sound of a saxophone came drifting by followed by the clip clop of horse drawn carriage and the deep baritone of a ship’s whistle (foghorn) moving slowly down the River a few blocks away. It was aural poetry. The winter light softened by the humidity was so seductive.

Of course the French Quarter is a big tourist draw, but for those first weeks it was low season so not many visitors in town. It had a very bohemian vibe, artists, writers, and of course musicians. I met and befriended a French photographer who had moved the for a book project. We lost touch after I moved but amazingly when I was going through the pictures I found one where he is on the edge of the frame grinning back at me as I photographed two drunk guys.

I immersed myself in the culture as much as a new arrival can, constantly out to hear music, eat amazing, cheap local food. Buster Holmes place served red beans and rice w/ half a baquette for $1. When I was flush I’d order oysters for 3 bucks. A place on Iberville that catered to sailors served the darkest richest gumbo I’ve ever had. Saw incredible music as well. The Radiators, The Meters, Professor Longhair, Little Queenie and the Percolators (perhaps the best band name ever). There was movie theater that would occasionally show old silent films and Huey “Piano” Smith would play the piano accompaniment. So, yeah. It was magic.

Whats it like going through your archives now and finding these gems? Is it motivating you to look deeper into your older work?

A little over a year ago I started a tumblr. I didn’t know what I should do with it so I started scanning and posting my oldest pictures going back to just after I left school in ’78. It was done rather randomly and without giving it much thought. It was more about me experimenting with tumblr and seeing how it worked. And it was fun. Every month or so I would take a few hours to go through old material and scan things.

I had recently, last summer I think, seen other “vintage” portfolios, like Bill Yates’ Skate Rink and Henry Horenstein’s Honky Tonk, which got me thinking about my Mardis Gras pictures. Then, in early January, I saw a call for entries from PhotoNOLA for a show called Masquerade. I thought, what the hell and entered a handful of the Mardis Gras pictures. One of the pictures was selected (Thank you Aline Smithson). So that provided the spark to go back and really edit these into a portfolio.

One of the nice things about this stage of my career is I have a pretty deep well of material. Much of my work is ongoing long term bodies of work, so going back is something I do fairly regularly, just not that far back. I recently completed a portfolio of color work that ranges from back in the mid-eighties through 2012. It’s ongoing work, something I’ve always done and will continue. Next month I’m having a solo show of my Ordinary People project, another long running and ongoing body of work. The earliest pictures in that series also go back to the eighties and up through a couple years ago.

Robbie is based in Portland. See more of his work, here.

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