Syndey Byrd, who died recently at 71, was one of the finest visual artists New Orleans ever produced. She moved here from Mississippi as a young woman, a visionary who treated the streets, costumes, churches and Carnival celebrations of people across society as her tabula rasa. She captured a priceless image of Fats Domino at Christmas, Mardi Gras Indians and rituals of the city’s soul. Her picture of maskers in costume at the Proteus Ball seems a bridge back to the Renaissance. I gave that photograph, framed, to two of my closest friends as gifts.
Byrd and I met in 1979. She did still work for a documentary I made with Jonathan Foose that dealt, in part, with Spiritual Churches in the Lower 9th Ward. She kept going to those churches long after the film was done; sometimes I went with her, other times I sat in her apartment on Royal Street and later the house she bought on Ursulines Avenue near Broad Street, gazing at the slides as she recounted the services or street parades – whatever she had been shooting.
Byrd was a colorist who used the lens in a style of poetic realism bathed in primary colors. Michael P. Smith had a more distinguished career, and with no disrespect to his good memory, had Byrd possessed Smith’s business acumen, her obituary might have made the New York Times.
She dreamed of a major book to capture the expanse of her work as an ethnographic image-maker. In the last two years, she was institutionalized with a severe form of Alzheimer’s. That imagined book, and others she should have done, never happened.
Her several exhibitions, including one at the New Orleans Museum of Art, were well-reviewed. The Jazz & Heritage Festival hired her for many years to photograph festival acts and has done a short video tribute on its website.
But for a talent so huge, she died unsung.
Artists are self-employed and must be adept at business. Byrd was too disorganized to manage her work. She would scrape together funds from friends or editors, fly to Europe or the Caribbean and come back broke with great new images. Most of her work is in thousands of slides.
In the 1980s she made several trips to Haiti, where she caught vistas of people in tropical forests, city streets ablaze with color and rivers where people bathe as if in a primeval world. “The Neon Tomb” is a cemetery scene from Haiti with a florescent bulb above the small mausoleum awash in deep mauve light. It is the best of her photographs among the five my wife and I have. I bought it one Christmas when Byrd called and begged me to come over. “Buy something, I’ll give you a great deal.” I bought two pictures and helped her get her over a hump, but left knowing the value of her works was worth more.
We often talked about Haiti; she really wanted to go back (before the country collapsed). I told her to get a few curators and art scholars to write letters recommending her for a Fulbright Fellowship; she could live in Haiti for months, get paid and shoot enough for a book.
“Baby,” she said. “What’s a Fulbright?”
She never applied. Her vast collection is under consideration by an archive from her estate. Wherever her pictures end up, I hope The World of Syndey Byrd becomes the book she longed to see, and that her photographs will find a wider market. The world deserves them.
I thought of Byrd’s pictures of Cajun Carnival in reading Way Down In Louisiana, writer Todd Mouton’s new book on the grand sweep of Acadiana music influenced by Clifton Chenier.
Mouton profiles Buckwheat Zydeco, Sonny Landreth, Lil’ Buck Sinegal and a range of others as linked to Chenier, the accordionist and blues singer who exerts influence a generation after his funeral. Mouton writes of Chenier “pulling cultural influences together to forge a music so unique and far-reaching that comparisons to Robert Johnson, Bob Marley and Muddy Waters only begin to illuminate his significance.”
Elegantly illustrated, Way Down in Louisiana belongs in every Christmas stocking for the over-15 set.