Many black neighborhoods in New Orleans are perceived by outsiders as being areas of decay. However, to photographer Michael P. Smith, in these neighborhoods remained the preserves of a rich cultural heritage. Smith, who photographed the subject for more than twenty years, saw the city’s African-American culture as “cultural wetlands” that engender much of the traditional music and folk life that have made New Orleans famous. In Spirit World,
Smith documents the thriving cultural richness of black New Orleans and captures the expressions of urban folk culture.
Smith, who was allowed to witness some of the most private religious ceremonies of the Spiritual Churches, captured the unbridled emotion of ceremony participants. Dramatic black and white stills show baptisms, possession trances, social-club marches, communion services, and street life. Midway through the book, an explosion of color serves as a transition from religious photographs to ones that are more secular and gives readers a spectacular glimpse at Mardi Gras Indians, a religious ordination, and a jazz funeral.
Spirit World originally appeared in 1983 as a popular traveling exhibit, which won a Certificate of Commendation from the American Association for State and Local History. Overwhelming positive reaction to the exhibit led the author to publish this catalogue of images and accompanying journal. Photographs from this book and two of Smith’s other books, A Joyful Noise: A Celebration of New Orleans Music and New Orleans Jazz Fest: A Pictorial History, have appeared in an exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. The one-man exhibit used images and field recordings to give a true sense of the featured culture.