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Exit Stage Right

Zack Smith’s festival photographs

Exit Stage Right

John Boutte, ChazFest, 2010.

As both a musician and photographer, Zack Smith believes that the world gets smaller as we celebrate our similarities and connect through our traditions and stories. The New Orleans Jazz Museum features an exhibition of portraits he shot at ChazFest in the Ninth Ward, HIP Fest, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles, the Ponderosa Stomp, and the Voodoo Music + Arts Experience. The photographs show musicians, music fans, backstage workers, and assorted hangers-on in quiet moments amid festival chaos.

Perhaps the first time I saw Zack’s Exit Stage Right photo booth was on the side of the Hard Liquor Stage at an early ChazFest. Assorted players and attendees would saunter over, pose with a style, smile, or grimace, and then get back to the serious business of festing and drinking killer margaritas. This effort to represent the essence of Louisiana festivals began as a simple idea to take photographs of the crowds walking in and out of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival in 2001, when he hung a white bedsheet from a tree near the Fair Grounds to serve as a photo backdrop. Zack expanded his concept to the Ponderosa Stomp, Festivals Acadiens et Créoles in Lafayette, and Voodoo Fest.

“There is a vibe and a culture that exists beyond the stage in Louisiana music,” Zack says. “From backyard festivals to massive multiday rituals, there are stories and portraits of the people that make the magic happen.”

His portraits show their subjects in an intimate way. For the musicians, Zack’s eye either adds to their mystique or shows the people behind their stage personas. He illuminates the festival-goer’s good nature. One could say that these portraits break down the alleged barriers between performer and audience. I prefer to say that everyone captured by Zack’s camera is a star and performer in their own way.

We know what great songwriters Paul Sanchez, Alex McMurray, and Luke Allen are. We know what great singers Meschiya Lake, Debbie Davis, and John Boutte are. I don’t have to tell you that no one plays the drums like Willie Green, Herlin Riley, and Johnny Vidacovich. These photos put the musicians of this generation into a similar pantheon of those who have come before them—from Buddy Bolden to Sidney Bechet to Dr. John.

Exit Stage Right: Zack Smith’s Festival Photographs will be on display at the New Orleans Jazz Museum through September 2, 2022. Visit louisianastatemuseum.org for more information.