Picturing Mardi Gras
Photo me something
photo Courtesy of the Louisiana State Museum
On Carnival Day this year the parade route will be filled with raised hands – and not all of them will be grasping for beads.
Those with cellphones and digital cameras will be snapping photos of the parade or taking selfies – and what more photogenic occasion could a camera-buff ask for than Mardi Gras?
The first photographs shown in New Orleans were daguerreotypes (the invention of the Frenchman Louis Daguerre) displayed in 1840 and taken by Jules Lion, a free man of color whose local photography studio was operating until 1843. However, there are no known Carnival-related pictures in his work.
Even before Mardi Gras as we know it began with Comus’ first parade in 1857, it was obvious that taking pictures of the event would be a good idea. Since there were already annual street celebrations on Mardi Gras Day, the Picayune recognized the opportunity in a March 4, 1840 editorial note: “We had our daguerreotype reflectors ready to take a proof of the procession as it passed our office, but our devil ran away to look at the show and we saw him a few minutes later with his arm around Queen Victoria in a barouche.”
The first possible parade photo is a stereopticon card in the Louisiana State Museum that may be of gentlemen on horseback in the first Rex Parade in 1872. A stereopticon had a lens for each eye and a sliding stick at the end of which a card with two photos of the same scene was placed. The photos are set different angles so viewing through the lens gives a 3-D effect.
Wayne Phillips, curator of costumes and textiles at the state museum, notes that most early photographs were studio portraits. Outdoor photography was less common, especially of a moving procession. “The earliest photograph that we can exactly date is extremely rare: The Rex Parade of 1887.” The first photograph of a night parade he knows of is one of Comus in 1898.
A treasure trove of early Mardi Gras photos can be found in Arthur Burton La Cour and Stuart O. Landry’s book New Orleans Masquerade: Chronicles of Carnival first published in 1952. The book includes the first Rex photographed in his costume, 1874 monarch W. S. Pike. Collecting Mardi Gras pictures and postcards was always popular. Pike’s photo was being advertised for sale in a Jan. 2, 1877 ad in the Picayune at “Harrington’s, 118 Canal Street.”
Photos can document krewe history. Zulu historian Clarence Becknell’s oldest krewe photo is of Arnold Moss, King Zulu 1927. Becknell has set up an annual Zulu display for 25 years at Lakeside Shopping Center; this year Zulu will also have an exhibit at the New Orleans Public Library main branch.
Interested photo collectors can start on the internet. Mardi Gras collector and architect Robbie Cangelosi has found cards and photos online, even on eBay. He also purchases “albums – so-and-so’s trip to New Orleans, going to parades, seeing people in costumes.” Cangelosi has given digitized versions of his photos to Dr. Stephen Hales, historian of Rex.
Photos can tell unusual Mardi Gras stories. A series of photos in Tulane University’s Louisiana Collection are labelled: “Rex floats being loaded at the river for shipping to Cuba.”
Hales points out that after the parade, Rex and other krewes might sell or auction off floats for shipment to other cities. “Ogden, Utah was in a real estate boom in 1890 – to celebrate, they got in touch with the Rex organization and set up a second Rocky Mountain Carnival Kingdom. Rex I went up there and crowned Rex II.” Hales noted that the event wasn’’t repeated, but a similar outing to Portland, Oregon evolved into the Portland Rose Festival, still going strong over a century later.
A Carnival photograph can even solve a mystery. Bonnie Boyd was able to use a photo of her grandmother, Edna May Hart, Comus Queen in 1909, to prove that jewelry items on display at an entertainment venue near Gallier Hall didn’t include a Storyville madam’s chastity belt, but were the pansy-decorated jewelry set worn in the regal photograph.
And if you’re in the mood for some Mardi Gras photo detective work yourself, visit loc.gov/pictures/resource/pan.6a27381. See if you can spot the photographer on a ladder in the middle of this early 1900s panoramic view of Rex on Canal Street, from the Library of Congress collection.