Blake Boyd is a collector. Equipped with an old Polaroid camera, the Slidell-born artist has amassed a wide-ranging cross section of Louisiana figures with the help of his wife, Ginette Bone. The project, Louisiana Cereal, comprises a decade’s worth of portraits, all shot on a Macro 5 SLR. Characterized by a universal background of stark white, the photos encapsulate a sense of time and place deeply personal to Boyd. Yet viewers will likely find an air of familiarity in the work, recognizing at least a few faces in this open-ended regional record. I recently sat down with the artist to talk about the history of the project and his passion for old technology.
What’s the origin story of Louisiana Cereal?
For me, the project actually started 30 years ago. I would take pictures in coin-operated photo booths. They used to be around; there were some at Kmarts. I think they used to have one at the Walgreens on Canal Street. One of the machines I used a lot was at Le Bon Temps [Roule], the bar on Magazine Street. I mostly was taking pictures of artists that I knew. I had put the project aside, then after Katrina everybody was displaced and I was nostalgic to go back and document everybody from here. I grew up here, and there was this big change happening in the city. A lot of it was because so many locals left. For me, the project helped me to hold everything together that I know.
And how many portraits make up the Louisiana Cereal collection at this point?
I think if I edited it, it’s at least 500 portraits.
How were you able to convince so many people to get in front of the camera?
Originally I was trying to photograph 100 Louisiana icons, so I went to places like Pat O’Brien’s, Cafe Du Monde, Lucky Dog, and Clover Grill and started shooting a lot of pictures of people in uniforms. Then I shot some people I knew who were a little bit famous, and that helped me convince more people. Then after I had maybe 50 images, I was able to go after even more people. I had a friend, Shawn Hall, who was the partner of Mark Bingham at Piety Street [Studios]. She helped me get a lot of musicians like Kermit Ruffins and Allen Toussaint. Once I started getting a mass, it was a lot easier, and Ginette did a lot of work approaching people.
The project features cultural icons like Uncle Lionel and Irma Thomas. Then there’s politicians like Ray Nagin and Bobby Jindal. You have celebrities, like Harry Shearer, Richard Simmons, and Patricia Clarkson. Sean Payton is in there, as is Anne Rice. What’s the significance of putting individual portraits of all these people into one collection?
Mostly to be a time capsule. As a kid, I wanted to move away. I went to New York City and London. I wanted to have different experiences. I think after Katrina a lot of people here realized what was special about this place. And I think a lot of stuff has disappeared. I remember going to Hubig’s, probably a year before they burned down, to photograph Andrew Ramsey, the general manager, and some of the workers in their uniforms. And now that’s one of those things that’s gone, so 50 years from now if this collection is made into a book, people will be able to reminisce and see who was here at this time.
Tell me about the portrait of Jose Holmes.
The longer the project has gone on, the more I’ve worked to find people. The Danziger [Bridge] shootings was something that really stuck in my mind. It was a really horrible event—unarmed people being shot, and cops claiming they heard gunfire and shooting at families without asking questions. I was able to get Jose, one of the victims of the shooting. He survived, and you can see in the photograph that he had a tracheotomy. You can see the bullet wounds. His friend [James Brissette] was also shot, and he passed away.
You also have a portrait of Warren Riley, the former NOPD superintendent. I’m interested in hearing about how you decide who to photograph.
If it wasn’t someone that was easily recognizable for a mass audience, I wanted to get people that had incredible stories. Some of the other people I wanted to document were people that I knew from growing up here, but not people everyone else would necessarily know. Al Scramuzza had Seafood City. He had these standout commercials in his time, wacky local ads with him singing and wearing a labcoat and holding up a stethoscope to a crawfish. I didn’t know he was still around but then I heard him on Poppy Tooker’s show [Louisiana Eats! On WWNO], so I had to findhim. Jude Acers is another one, he’s the chess champion on Decatur Street. He’s been in that location since before I was born, and I was born in the ‘70s. I grew up in Slidell, and as a kid I’d come into New Orleans on the weekends and we’d stop at Central Grocery for muffalettas. Some of my earliest impressions as a toddler were seeing Jude out there, playing chess.
How has the work changed for you over time?
When I first started in the photo booth I wanted to get Paul Prudhomme and the Neville Brothers. Some of the people I wanted died before I started back up. But since I revamped the project, there’s been a whole new set of people to document, like Brad Pitt. Back when I started, the project wouldn’t have included someone like him, but through Make It Right in the Lower Ninth Ward he became a figure in the city after the storm. I also got a guy who worked on the Deepwater Horizon, wearing the shirt he wore when he worked on the rig.
It’s a unique entry into the “post-Katrina photography” genre in that all of the images are devoid of scenery. Your photos are just the individual in front of a white backdrop, almost like a passport photo.
I was trained as a painter, but I was mentored by a few photographers. One was Billy Name, who was Andy Warhol’s kind of live-in manager. He also documented Warhol’s factory. I love documentary photography and the candidness of Billy’s pictures. Then there was Andres Serrano, the artist who did “Piss Christ.” Originally I was using the photo booth prints to paint from, creating large acrylic Warhol-esque canvases. When I met Andres, he was taking portraits of the Ku Klux Klan, and he made me look at formal portraiture. I loved the way he posed people, the presence they had. I realized with the photo booth machine, you stick someone in there and put the quarters in and people relax. They’re themselves. I like that mix between formal photography and candidness. And I liked that clean white background. When I started with the Polaroid, I wanted to keep that same look… I photographed Pete Fountain before he passed away, and he wanted to hold his clarinet. And I don’t want anyone to hold anything, just a head and shoulders shot. That’s the focal point of the camera I use, and it’s like the photo booth in that I’m limited to this pretty tight frame. So I don’t want props or anything busy, just this almost clinical portrait.
And why Polaroid instant film?
So I wasn’t really trained as a photographer, but I feel like I learned to frame stuff from working with the photo booth. I’m less familiar with all the technical aspects, although I’m getting better and I know a lot more about photography than when I started. I like instant film, and Polaroid cameras were like the artist’s camera. They were kind of art pieces, like the whole packaging, design, and mechanics of the cameras… When Polaroid announced they were going to stop making film, I was about a year into this project, and so Ginette and I stockpiled $25,000 worth of film. I met a guy who was one of the heads at Polaroid. He had retired, but when I heard rumors that they quit making SX-70, which was the Polaroid film you could scribble on while it was developing, I called him up and asked if they were going to quit making Spectra, the film I shoot. He told me I’d be fine. Then when I heard they were cancelling making all the film, I called him again and he told me, “Yeah, you’d better buy up all the film you’re going to need.” So I was only a year into the project and had maybe 50 portraits. I was devastated. I didn’t want to quit, and I had to convince Ginette to max out her credit cards to buy all these cases of film. I went to Polaroid to try and buy it through them. Then I went to the Walgreens and they still had it on the shelf. I bought everything they had in the store and they told me, “Oh, you’re buying so many packs. You get a 15% discount on this.” It was cheaper than going straight to Polaroid. So then I asked, “Can you get any more?” They told me they could get it from the warehouse. I ended up talking to the manager and asked how much I could get and she told me they had more than I could buy. She said it would be $5,000 to get it all. And so I said, “I’ll take it.” At first she thought I was kidding, but then she made a call. We had to put a down payment on it, and she had the film shipped to the Walgreens on St. Charles, a huge pallet of film I shoved into my Volvo. She was looking at me like I was crazy, but then she asked, “Do you want any more of this?” And I said yes, and then she told me she could call other warehouses. So we had to buy a refrigerator to store it all so it wouldn’t go bad. I filled it with as much film as I could, but I still had a stack of boxes as tall as the fridge.
How would you say using this film fits into the nostalgia theme?
After Katrina happened and Polaroid disappeared, it was the end of two eras. I’m glad these are shot on Polaroid because Katrina ended a lot of things that was New Orleans. You know, there’s a lot of new energy and in a way that’s great. I go down on Rampart Street, a street that when I was a kid I would never walk down. It was very dangerous. Now you’ve got a bar that looks like New York or L.A., a champagne bar. There’s a lot of things that are not New Orleans anymore. People would ask me about New Orleans after Katrina, and I would tell them it wasn’t the same. It was hard for me to put my finger on it, but then I remembered the church that burned down in Lower Garden District, and the Coliseum Theater (Kenny Morrison’s place) also burned down. A lot of the buildings have been knocked down, like where the World War II museum is. A lot of things have changed and I think a lot of people with money were able to come in and say, “Hey, we’ve got a new plan for the city.” Like the whole medical complex. And I guess in some ways it’s good that some of those things happened, but there is a lot of empty land and it’s amazing to me that they were able to use eminent domain to knock down people’s houses that had just rebuilt from Katrina. I know historically things change in any city over time, but Katrina allowed for this rapid change of locals moving out, parts of the city being torn down, new people moving in with different ideas of what should happen here. And some of them are great—I don’t want to complain too much. There’s a lot of aspects of New Orleans that will probably be better off. But for a local, seeing all this… like I said, it gets back to the nostalgia. I do want to capture all these people that made up this place. That’s kind of why I like the Polaroid. It’s such a unique film, there’s nothing like the old Polaroid.
Do you ever think about how you’re using this more-or-less obsolete medium in an age where digital cameras are ubiquitous?
I’m a fan of old technology. I apprenticed to an artist that used to do a lot of geometric designs, so he had the old Beam compasses, which they still made when I was a kid. But computers knocked out those old drafting tools. I don’t think there’s any true drafting houses anymore, but there used to be a couple of places in New Orleans that you could get drafting equipment. I guess I like old tools, the way they were made. The camera I bought was made for forensics and dentistry. It has five settings, from an eyeball to a head-and-shoulders shot. I don’t think it’s still here anymore, but Liberty Camera in the CBD processed and sold film. They also sold cameras, and they had two of these cameras, the Macro 5. I had asked the guy if they had a camera that could do passport or photo booth type pictures. So he showed me these cameras that had just come out, and for maybe two years I was going in and looking at the camera. Almost weekly. And it was like a thousand bucks, and I couldn’t afford to spend that much money on a Polaroid camera. After a year or two, the guy says to me, “Hey kid, I see you keep looking at this camera. I can’t sell it. This digital photography has come out and it does what these cameras do, so nobody wants these.” And it was the early days, when you had to put a floppy disc in the digital cameras, but it did about the same thing as these older cameras. Everyone wanted the latest, greatest thing, and I guess the forensic cops and dentists prefered this new technology. So the guy sold me one of these old cameras at cost and I fell in love with it. I’m from the last generation before digital. I still have that analog nostalgia. I want to hold on to it.
I feel like we all shoot so many pictures on our phones, and the images don’t hold the same significance. When I travel, I’ll bring one of those disposable cardboard cameras. Unlike the camera on my phone, I save the disposable film camera for when there’s a shot I really want.
So they still make those?
Yeah. You can order them off eBay. I recently bought four for 20 bucks.
When I started going to New York back in the ‘90s, my friends could get me into the big clubs, so I’d bring around these small, clunky film cameras. I’d stick them in my pocket but they’d still be huge. Then they made the disposable ones and I wouldn’t have to worry about them getting lost. So I started to use the disposables and really liked them.
When we take pictures with digital mediums, we’re way less likely to view those images outside of a screen. I think there’s something to be said for printing things out.
I’m in the process of moving right now, so I’ve been going through a lot of my things and I still have all these old prints. I get caught up looking through them, and I don’t quite do that with a computer.
So is this project now coming to a close?
I’m running out of film. There’s still a number of people I want to get, like John Larroquette and Britney Spears. But it’s time to wrap it up, especially because the film is starting to go bad. I’m realizing I have to end it. The Spectra film that I’m using—I don’t know if it always discolored, or if Polaroid at the end was cutting back on their chemicals—but all the early portraits I shot are becoming horribly yellow. So just like the Louisiana coastline and so much of the city of New Orleans, the film is fading. I hope that I’ve done a good job of capturing this time and the people in it.
The opening for Blake Boyd’s Louisiana Cereal: The Kickstarter Project takes place on August 5th at the Boyd Satellite Gallery, 440 Julia Street. For more information, visit louisianacereal.com.
Cover photo of Blake Boyd by Ginette Bone