chris bickford – death, rebirth, and celebration in new orleans

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Chris Bickford

Death, Rebirth, and Celebration in New Orleans

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The city of New Orleans lies at the swampy bottom of of the largest watershed in North America, and the top edge of the most hurricane-prone inland sea in the Western Hemisphere.  It is, at once, an epicenter of trade, transportation, and cultural ferment; and at the same time probably one of the worst places to build a city one could ever choose.   The same waterways that brought people, goods, and cultural influences from France, Spain, Cuba, Haiti, Britain, Ireland, the American West, the American South, the heart of Africa, and all of Europe, also brought the threat of epic floods and hurricanes, yellow fever and malaria, and conquest from every nation eager to hold the mouth of the great Mississippi River in its dominion.

New Orleans was built on high ground in the middle of a swamp, the only truly viable land in the area being the natural levee that had built up along a bend in the river (the “Crescent”) as it passed close to Lake Pontchartrain, a large brackish estuary that provided a faster and safer route to the Gulf of Mexico than the treacherous, shifting delta that faced cargo boats heading to the Gulf via the last 100 miles of the Mississippi.   Between the crescent and the Lake lay another strip of high ground, an ancient Indian portage route which the French named Esplanade Ridge.   It was on these mounds, surrounded by swampland, that the city, named after a notoriously decadent French Viceroy, was built.

It has been almost 300 years since then, and in that time New Orleans has survived three regime changes; disastrous floods, fires, and epidemics; times of great prosperity and times of dramatic financial depression.   It has endured racism, white flight, urban blight, and gentrification.  It has seen the establishment of several Big Oil headquarters and their subsequent abandonment.   It has seen its hometown NFL football team suffer losing season after losing season, until their dramatic Super Bowl victory in 2010.  It has watched as engineers and developers pumped out the swamp water adjacent to the ridges and built vast neighborhoods on soggy, below-lake-and-river-level ground.  And it has seen these neighborhoods flooded and destroyed twice, first from  Hurricane Betsy in 1965, and and then from the devastating Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It has seen the murder rate soar in its poorest neighborhoods.   And it has seen, through all of this, the strange and beautiful fermentation of a whole host of ethnic influences that have made New Orleans one of the most culturally significant cities in the world.   There is no city that compares to New Orleans in the sheer depth,  range, and complexity of its musical and cultural heritage, which remains a living, breathing, continually evolving way of life–and serious business for New Orleanians. New Orleans is, hands down, the funkiest city in the world.

It also has quite possibly the most complex and confounding history of race relations of any city in the United States.   From the Free Blacks of Color who played an integral part of the city’s commerce and culture for over 100 years before the Emancipation Proclamaton, to the Sunday gatherings in Congo Square where blacks both slave and free were given the day off to dance, sing, share news, and exchange goods, to the Post-Reconstruction takeover of the segregationist White League, to the repressive Jim Crow era, straight up to school integration and the White Flight of the 1960’s… from the institutionalized police brutality of 20th century to black Mardi Gras Indians leading a procession at the inauguration of white mayor Mitch Landrieu in 2010- race relations in New Orleans have swung from some of the most liberal to some of the most reactionary in the country, and back again.  Walk the streets of New Orleans today, and you can feel the same tension.  Whites, blacks, and other ethnic groups tend to occupy different neighborhoods and keep to their own, but those neighborhoods are so close to each other that interaction is second nature to the city dwellers.  And though there is plenty of racism and fear to go around, the boundaries are easily melted with a smile, a handshake, and an attitude of mutual respect.   The music and the street life bring people together.  There is violence, there is poverty, there are glaring inequities.   But in New Orleans, even the richest uptown houses look just a little run-down, and even the poorest black man can build himself a perfect suit of beads and feathers and dazzle the world when the Mardi Gras Indians come out to strut their stuff.

And through it all, there has been the Mardi Gras, the Carnival celebration imported from Europe, that, as history tells it, was first celebrated in Louisiana on March 3, 1699, by French explorer Pierre Le Moyne, Sieur d’Iberville, on a campsite on the east bank of the Mississippi River, which he named “Pointe du Mardi Gras.”   From the beginning it was a multicultural affair.  On March 20 the local Houma Indians welcomed Iberville and his men into their village and treated them to a formal celebration, with dancers and drummers wearing body paint and fur headdresses and sashes of painted feathers.  The party lasted all day and into the night, in classic Carnival fashion: naked, painted and adorned revelers singing, dancing, and drumming their way into ecstasy.

Mardi Gras has undergone many transformations since then, from the raucous Creole street-parties of the eighteenth century, to the Protestant takeover in the mid-1800’s by “Rex, King of Carnival”, who sought to tame Carnival by establishing rules and creating secret WASP societies, or “krewes”, which staged elaborate parades through the city…then, to the hippie revolution in the 1960’s, when all hell broke loose on the streets…and all the while parallel carnivals went on, the “Carnival Noir”: the Carnival of the Mardi Gras Indians, the Carnival of the brothels and the Baby Dolls, the Carnival of the Skull and Bone Gangs- who would walk the streets at dawn on Mardi Gras Day, dressed as skeletons, waking up the living and the dead, and the Carnival of Zulu, the largest and oldest Social Aid and Pleasure Club in New Orleans, whose inclusion into the otherwise exclusively white roster of Mardi Gras Parades–and whose self-parodying traditions of coconuts, blackface, and grass skirts–sparked a controversy that exists to this day about the portrayal and inclusion of African-Americans in predominantly white American culture.

These photographs, taken in 2010 and comprised mainly of New Orleanians participating in a year-round roster of traditional festivities, dance nights, and costume balls, are presented not so much as documentary images of everyday life in New Orleans, but more as symbolic meditations on the cycles of death, rebirth, and transformation that New Orleans has undergone, and continues to undergo in its tragic, dramatic, fascinating, funky, strange, and beautiful history.

In New Orleans, the dead seem to lie just a little closer to the living.  Its cemeteries, or “cities of the dead”, are scattered about the city, mazes of above-ground tombs which were found necessary to build once it was discovered that bodies buried in the swampy ground would only rise to the surface after heavy rains.   Many of its old houses are considered haunted, and “Ghost Tours” are a popular tourist attraction in the French Quarter and other parts of the town.  News of shootings are common headlines in the Times-Picayune newspaper, and the sound of gunshot can occasionally be heard at night between the rumble of passing trains.   Nothing, however, has compared to the death-blow the city was dealt when Hurricane Katrina swept through in 2005, leaving in its aftermath a broken city, a mass exodus of generations-old families, and a glaring exposé of race-based poverty that still has not been addressed by the state or federal government.  But somehow New Orleans has managed to survive through it all, and to laugh in the face of death with its Carnival dance of Devil-may-care abandon.  At Mardi Gras time, at Halloween time, and on funeral days and Sundays throughout the year, New Orleans still puts on its high-stepping second-line shoes and dances its way through the streets and alleyways, celebrating life that is all the more sweet due to its fragility and unpredictability.

Five years after Katrina, New Orleans is on its way back. It is a slow rebirth, and brings with it changes that are in some ways positive and some ways not so positive.  But during my time in New Orleans, I heard the same story over and over again; countless people had heard the siren-call sent out by a desperate city, came to help out, fell in love with the place and its people, and never left.  So while the city works diligently to encourage the return of its diaspora, a new New Orleans is being born… perhaps not the New Orleans of Tennessee Williams or Andrei Codreiscu, perhaps not the New Orleans of Fats Domino or Louis Armstrong…but still a New Orleans of pride and revelry, a New Orleans of artists and free-thinkers, and a New Orleans that cherishes the crazy funky stew of culture that makes it one of the greatest and most interesting cities in the world.

This March 8 will mark the 313th Mardi Gras since Bienville’s first celebration with the Houma Indians at Pointe du Mardi Gras in 1699, and the sixth Mardi Gras since Hurricane Katrina.  May the sun shine warm on the merry revelers of New Orleans, and don’t, don’t, don’t stop the Carnival.

Note: Special thanks goes to Federica Valabrega, who assisted on this project and held the light in many of these images.   Federica’s essay, Daughters of the King, was published on Burn in the fall of 2010.



Chris Bickford is a freelance photographer based on the US East Coast. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Geographic Traveler, Time Magazine, Newsweek, Outside Magazine, Surfing Magazine, and various other national and inter-national publications. His photographic essay, After the Storm: A Life of Surf on the Outer Banks, was first published on Burn in 2009 and has been showcased at a number of exhibitions and photography festivals since then. Among various other projects, Chris is working on a long-term exploration of Carnival celebrations around the world, which was the impetus for his 2010 residency in New Orleans. This year he will be in Rio de Janeiro for Carnival.

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Chris Bickford

23 Responses to “chris bickford – death, rebirth, and celebration in new orleans”


    i like the subject matter, (obviously:o), depth of the story, colour pallet..
    add the socio/economic/political context.. and it’s a powerful piece.
    good stuff my friend.

    do you have plans for any work in europe on your ccelebration world-tour?

  • Just love nr. 4 and 16 (marching band and lil girl with green umbrella).. thanks :)

  • I haven´t seen the whole essay just too busy… but photo number four is the type of image which stops me from hanging up my camera everytime I start questioning my obsession and love for photography.

  • no 10…for me ……….

  • You know you’re getting old when you think buying a Snickers bar counts as Mardi Gras fun.

  • Seeing these makes me ache to return to New Orleans. Wonderful.

  • New Orleans, Rio – you guys are starting to make me jealous. You really made something special Chris in the midst of all that fun and chaos – impressive. And love your sense of light and color too.

  • GREAT imagery…
    being a cajun girl myself,
    I know that shooting in the Big Easy,
    isn’t always easy:)
    you captured more than the mardi gras spirit…..
    great energy…..
    and the lighting…

  • Really great pix, Chris; if I weren’t afraid of running into my ex sister in law, I’d go down there and see this stuff for myself.

  • Great pictures. Must see it again.
    I also like the use of the flash…

  • Always a pleasure to see your work Chris, especially on Burn. Cheers!

  • Some fine captures, but all in all, good professional, serviceable photography. Hence I cannot quite see here the symbolic meditation and record of transformation you mention in your introduction. There is actually something slightly unpersonal about it that keeps me from enjoying it as I usually do, essays on BURN.

    Maybe it’s because that even in New-Orleans, what was a ritual has become a colorful copy of itself, and good all-around fun replaces the true intensity of a celebration, so that what was for the ages has now become a (yearly) recurrence. No fault of your own.

    This said,Fiestas/festivals are a tough subject for photographers, since the colors, excitment and festive crowds can allow for generic, if skilled, shots. One can’t never quite lose, but as well have one’s intuitive juices co-opted by the energy deployed around us.

  • “Leaving New Orleans also frightened me considerably. Outside of the city limits the heart of darkness, the true wasteland begins.”-John Kennedy Tool, ‘A Confederacy of Dunces’

    “They would play on into the night and into blue mornings, growing louder the notes burning through and off everyone and forgotten in the body because they were swallowed by the next one after and Bolden and Lewis and Cornish and Mumford sending them forward and forth till, as Bolden could see them, their bursts of air were animals fighting in the room…”–Michael Ondaatje, ‘Coming Through Slaughter’

    How does one begin to describe the meaty soul and mossy, fecund spirit that is New Orleans? A city fermented by the dance of death and song of ghoulish sounds, a city so ripe in it’s ghosts and living steps that it is impossible to not spend some time there without clicking your heals and waddling up into a corner to have a chat with a long-departed pirate or gator steamer, all that before the jambalaya and the sweet bread shots come saddled with the bourbon….that city is more than the blues and jazz, it is gospel, and it’s ragin’, blessed and heart-broke, wide-grinned and open armed….just as a walk behind a funeral procession or a dart between shotgun porches amid the clattering rain….

    Does one, can one, begin to understand or partake of that city amid the jubilation, exhultation and frenzy that is Mardi Gras, that remarkable Cajun-Voodoo, Jazz-Bustin’, Heart-sticking, particular type of celebration that, for me, has few peers. If Rio is about fucking, if Salvador is about costumes, if Olinda is about Samba, if Trinidad is about the hips and the lips, then New Orleans is about the heart, the sloppy yellin’, tear-drained cryin’, mad-brilliant love-burst heart…..and the heart of NO is the soul, the ache right there between your ribs, from all that has been lost straight up through the larynx and skull for all that is hoped for….

    not a melancholy city, but a city born upon the feet-stompin’, heart-blurting sadness of praising in joy…..

    for mardi gras ain’t at all about the feathery bustin’, coin-clickin’, swagger about Mardi Gras, but rather Mardi Gras is of, because New Orleans stomps and breathes and breaks your and its heart every moment of it’s loamy, effusive life…..

    What i do love about your Essay Chris is that there, between all the brilliant lighting and gorgeous color (more about that in a bit), between all the ‘expected’ pictures of gorgeous outfits and mad-bird dancers, is that melancholy that does ache each nawliner…not the ache of Katrina and the flight (that is much too recent in her long, heart-break story), but the ache of what you’ve spoken of: building, nearly impossibly, land from the swamp, life from the dead, a city build upon the tombs and tons and bones of her history and inhabitants….slavery, cypress, burning water, rattled and skrimshawed bones…

    there are pictures here that, for me, capture the complexity of NO, it’s brilliance for faith and creativity, its unquenchable desire to rise, higher than the levees, but also it’s recognition of the ghosts….picture #2 is THE first pivotal photograph and this shows me that YOU GET THAT city, that you not only lived it, but sucked upon more than crawdaddies and bourbon, but understood that there ain’t nowhere in that city that doesn’t dance to the tune of the dead, that doesn’t still believe that it ain rundown but that it’s a vermillion clicked place…Picture 2 gives it wide and beautiful…the church, the angle, the silhouette, the enormous godfigure dancer/demon….THAT is part of the spirit of Mardi Gras….I loved that you included a funeral march….for me, THAT IS THE HEART OF MARDI GRAS/N.O….because one must watch/see/LISTEN to a NO funeral march to get exactly what is so special about N.O….and of course the magnificent closing image, which along with #2, are my FAVORITE photographs….because for this subject, they ARE N.O…..lyrical, amibiguous, shadow-tongued, beauty….

    it goes without saying that, as always Chris, your use of color is powerful and for me visceral. As I wrote under your essay after David’s workshop, you understand light and color as physical manifestations of emotion, of expression, physicality as metaphor. Yes, there are some technical ‘exciting’ photographs serviced by the classic Bickford technique (all the great pics: 8 (love that she is hold the torch of the sun, like the NO Stature of liberty), 10, 11, 12 (which i called the David Alan Harvey sequence, as they reflect very much David’s use of flash and light and all 3 seem like allusions to David’s work, as you have been a remarkable student for him!), 13 & 17 (classic bicford and beautiful use of shadow, once again your great use of Chiaroscuro), 22, 24, etc)… goes without saying that, to me, THIS ESSAY LOOKS LIKE BICKFORD!….just as with your beautiful project on CUBA, your sensibility for light and the emotion of light is both painterly and poetic…for me, light must, as should color, evoke something more than just ‘wow’, it must for me suggest physical meaning, the ‘shape and space’ of color…and your work here does that…and that is what i celebrate….

    And I do hope that readers spend some time with your prose Chris. As i have said before, you may be the only other photographer who writes as a long an essay statement as yours truly, and for me, this is an example of writing and photography integrated….as always, beautifully, intelligently and lyrically written…..a powerful combination…

    i would say that, to some degree, i share some reservation as Herve…i want MORE than just the dancing…although it is mardi gras ;)))…i want more like #2 and #26…more aftermath, more quiet…more food…more of those silent moments that lead prior and culminate on wednesday….

    what it means to meditate upon loss and from that loss comes the belief…the belief in the living…

    thank you chris, for again, giving us your special vision


  • Chris,

    Well done! The technique, energy, along with the great moments captured here really carry the images in this essay, both artistically and journalistically. I am sure the same energy is driving your work on the streets of Rio as we speak!

    It is good to see this work as a formal essay here on Burn.

    Favorites include…9, 13, and 26. Excellent work! Safe travels.

    Cheers, Jeremy

  • Final day Rio party.I am ready for fiesta be over.I am usually last to drop , but finally sleep deprivation takes me down.Fantasize pillows 6 hrs ago
    yup…nothing compare to pillows…hmmm maybe im wrong…

    “Pure Morning”

    A friend in needs a friend indeed,
    A friend with weed is better,
    A friend with breasts and all the rest,
    A friend who’s dressed in leather,…
    Thats better than pillows…just a suggestion;)

  • Some really fantastic photography. But… I’m kinda with Herve on this one. What I think would have made a most killer essay is if you had of just stuck with the Bone Gang. #19 is truly mind blowing and leaves me wanting to know more about just them…. #2 is amazing as well and even if not a member of the Bone could fit right in. But I know how fun it is to photograph dancing and I’m sure I would have done the same thing.:) Pretty fricking hard to resist and you did it more than justice…



  • Hey folks, thanks for the comments…all are constructive and well-considered. Charles, I actually started the edit with a bunch more photos of the Bone Gang, as if they were leading the viewer on a tour of the liminal New Orleans. In the end I had too many photos, so I made the decision to keep the thing as consistent as possible without repeating too much subject matter, and I’ll definitely revisit my edit with all your comments in mind.

    I went down to New Orleans last year as part of this long-term Carnival project, but kinda fell for the place, as people often do. Even thought about moving there. I agree with those of you who think the project requires a little something extra…it’s just a question of what direction to take it. And that, honestly, I’m not really sure about. Yet. New Orleans is definitely not finished with me.

    There are undoubtedly a few photos here that I put in just because they are pretty pictures….and many more I had to cut:) Geez, you think there’s a lot of party people here? I got 500 gigs of party people:)

    My approach and intention for the series has been to create something more archetypal/mythological/symbolic etc rather than photojournalistic. I do have a number of more documentary-style shots, but not enough good ones for them to seem out of place in this essay. Next time I go down and spend some quality time there I’ll go a little deeper. We’ll see what happens. I want to keep the feel of what I’ve got so far but keep working the edges and capture a little more of the grit and funk of New Orleans, along with the spirit. It’s moved just far enough beyond strictly a piece about Carnival, although I think the Carnival spirit is something that really imbues everyday life in New Orleans, and the concept of what Carnival actually “means” is infinitely complex, as I am beginning to discover.

    Anyway, I thank those of you who have commented so far, and please keep it coming.


  • CHRIS :))

    it will be great to see how this pans out…very curious to see your take on the relationship between Venice and N.O. and Rio and I hope some of the Carribean carnivals (you need to come here for the Trinidad show in july)….anyway….they all are defined by very different spiritual and political and historical traditions, even though most just see a bunch of lush bodies dancing…

    for this work, as i tried to describe, the heart is there…the brilliant #2 and #26, as well as #4 (i love that you’ve shot folk in their hoodies without fanfare and within the dream-march toward the dying in that calypso tune of water). #19 (another of my fave images, for all it’s politics and that young child with the skull mask against the righteous painted shadows)…and thank goodness you included native americans…

    i am waiting to see the post-mardi stuff and all the madness that leads up to it….

    and another funeral….for isn’t mardi gras really a funeral to begin with, ushering us past the suffering? :))

    hope folks read the statement too :)


  • Magnificent essay – and I had the same reaction as Paul to #4.

    The first time I came here, I did not have time to read, blow up, or linger and I quickly skimmed through it. My initial thought was along the line of Herve’s, but now that I have taken spent some time with it, I don’t feel that way at all.

    I think you did a great job, one that rose beyond conventional celebration photography.

    Even so, Charles Peterson’s statement really hit me – that could be so powerful, to zero in on one – but no reason not to take the broad shot as well.

    Since I became aware of Mardi Gras, I have always wanted to go.

    I don’t know that it will ever happen, but thanks for the look.

  • Image number 19 is a standout for me, but I’m gonna return to this. A little too tired to really dig deep into this, but that one hit me and made go “damn, I wish I’d made that, it really speaks to something”.

  • CHRIS,

    Coming in late here as I was away on vacations…. I want number 19 for me :):):)… what an amazing shot!!!! Always inspiring to see your work Chris!!!…. Your previous essay “After the storm” is one of the few essays here I have gone back several times to look at again…. I think you have not quite yet created the same magic here in my view…. I felt your work in “After the storm” was SO powerful, aesthetically very accomplished but at the same time, it was transpiring from the work that you were a surfer yourself…. there was you in that essay, the emotions, the surf, the waves, the sand, the friendship, all that seem so real and felt…. the work here is equally accomplished from pure aesthetic standpoint but maybe, just maybe you seem a tiny bit more of a spectator here…we are less drawn inside…. some pictures definitely are successfully accomplishing this but some maybe not as much while still colorful, etc… Hard to give you advice here but maybe think less about the aesthetic part of the picture (you are a master there anyay!!) and give us more of the emotions, madness etc… I have no doubt you will get this as this is work in progress and you are not done with the topic… I am surre you must have got the madness part in Rio with David, Lance and Co :):)…. I wish I could have been there…. Take care and hope to see you sometimes….



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