A staple tradition in the streets of New Orleans will parade its way to UCLA.
On Saturday, Pableaux Johnson, a Louisiana native who photographs second line parades in New Orleans, will be conducting an artist talk at the Fowler Museum at UCLA. At the event, he will lead attendees through an exhibition featuring his photographs of second line parades and speak about the culture he documents. The parades are put on by social clubs each week, a tradition that has been a signature of New Orleans since the 1800s. Johnson approaches photographing the parades as a means of intimately documenting an aspect of New Orleans culture that isn’t found anywhere else, he said.
“You’re lucky enough to put your eyes toward what’s going on in your city and how these traditions are changing and evolving on your watch,” Johnson said.
Social aid and pleasure clubs, or simply social clubs, in New Orleans began as a form of quasi-insurance. During the 1800s, much like an Irish-American club in Boston, African-American communities would pool funds together and lend out money when a member of the community was in need, said Patrick Polk, a world arts and cultures lecturer and one of the curators for the exhibition. These organizations thus historically became rooted in a community-based, philanthropic identity that has survived to the present day.
Today, there are 60 to 80 social clubs in New Orleans, Johnson said. On 40 Sundays of the year, a different club puts on a second line parade full of grand displays of fashion, music and culture. Members of the club dress in bright and intricate costumes and show off elaborate dances, all to the tune of New Orleans brass bands, which combines many elements of African-American music since the turn of the century, including jazz, hip-hop and funk. Johnson documents these bright and exuberant moments with his camera, preserving the traditions found in the parades, Polk said.
“During your Sunday you put on astonishing finery, you are the star of the show,” Johnson said. “You basically have a parade that is a dance floor that migrates through your neighborhood and different parts of the city that are important to your club.”
Johnson’s photographs are so intimate and personal that viewers can see the excitement in the dancers’ eyes and the sweat on their faces, Polk said. The photos are designed to highlight the cultural elements of New Orleans. In one photo, aimed at drawing attention to the prominent Atlantic-African culture of the city, a man in light orange and electric blue holding a matching sign that reads “Sittin on top of da world” is seen leading a group of excited marchers through the crowded streets. Johnson’s work demonstrates a clear sense of identity that manifests in the intimacy found in his photos, Polk said, which he thinks is important to those walking and dancing in the parades and who wish to be seen.
“There’s a choreography to his engagement with the people,” Polk said. “And the outcome of it is there’s very beautiful, intimate images of folks at moments of happiness and pleasure and pride.”
Another important aspect to the second line parades is that they are open to everyone. While they are planned and executed by the African-American social clubs, anybody in New Orleans is free to watch the parade, and even join in, said Action Jackson, a DJ for the New Orleans radio station WWOZ. They are expressions of culture everyone can participate in, including Johnson himself, who walks among the paraders in order to accurately capture on film the aura of the parades.
“It don’t matter what color you is, it don’t matter how you dance, if you got the spirit just come on out there and have a great time,” Jackson said.
Johnson tries to capture what it feels like to be in the midst of a parade by actively participating in it while he shoots. He said he tries to capture an experience in the frenetic, enveloping kinetic environment in a still frame by paying close attention to small movements and details. Johnson said capturing the movements and rhythm of the second line parades is like photographing an NBA playoff game – he must capture the parade’s emotion and passion.
One of the most important things Johnson does in his work, Polk said, is returning photographs he’s taken of the parades to their respective clubs. In doing so, Johnson allows them to have access to their own personal histories. Johnson said he feels his art is always in progress, always developing along the social clubs and moving like a parade.
“It is an ongoing body of work that shows this group of people who participate in this thing just how wonderful and beautiful what they do is,” Johnson said.