Eager to escape Chicago’s bitter winter, two young photographers jumped into a car and headed south in 1973. Douglas Baz and Charles Traub didn’t care where they were going as long as it was relatively warm.
Along the way, they attracted attention whenever they stopped to take pictures — hardly surprising, since one of their cameras was a boxy old-fashioned model, featuring a hood and sitting atop on a tripod, that looked like a holdover from the 19th century.
“Someone said, ‘Well, it sounds like you’re interested in landscapes and food. You ought to go across I-10 into Cajun country and check it out,’” Baz said.
So they went, following the Great Mississippi River Road and having no idea of what they might encounter when they arrived.
Baz and Traub both had master’s degrees in photography from the Illinois Institute of Technology, but their road trip preceded the work that people like the musician Clifton Chenier and the chef Paul Prudhomme had done to make the world pay attention to Cajun culture.
The more than 100 photographs in the exhibition “Cajun Document: Acadiana 1973—74” were made more than 45 years ago. Visiting photographers Ch…
“All of a sudden, we found ourselves in a place we didn’t know, and didn’t know existed. We literally stumbled upon it,” Traub, 75, said. “It was totally unique to us. … We loved the landscape — being city boys, this was totally alien to us — and it was all just very remarkable. Plus, it was warm, at least compared to Chicago.”
After a few days of exploring southwest Louisiana, meeting friendly people and eating what was, to them, exotic food, Baz and Traub had to return to the Windy City because they were teaching at Columbia College Chicago.
But not long after they got back, the pair realized the region they’d just left would be an ideal spot for a photographic study of the land, its people, their work and their folkways.
“We assumed that someone had already probably done some photographic work in the area, but when we looked around, we couldn’t find anything of that quality that we thought it deserved,” Baz, 76, said. “We quit our jobs, drove back down, took an apartment in Breaux Bridge. We turned the bathroom into a darkroom and proceeded to photograph every day.”
Images from their six-month exploration, culled from about 3,300 prints, make up “Cajun Document: Acadiana, 1973-74,” at the Historic New Orleans Collection at 520 Royal St. The 150 photographs will be on view through Jan. 17.
These are among the indelible images:
Edwin Broussard, his arms flung high in sheer joy, surrendering to the music as he two-steps at La Poussiere in Breaux Bridge.
A solemn couple, looking like the people in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic,” standing side by side on their land in Vermilion Parish.
An unnamed woman calmly holding a rooster she’s about to slaughter.
Chenier in full cry in Mamou.
An unnamed man showing off his cowboy boot, with a spouting oil rig on the side, outside Blanchard’s Shoe and Leather Repair Shop in Breaux Bridge.
“We were embraced totally because we showed interest in the people, the culture, the food and the music,” said Traub, the chairman and founder of a master’s degree program in photography, video and related media at the School of Visual Arts in New York City.
“People were so happy that we were there to document and record them,” he said. “We didn’t have any hostility any time in the six months we were there, which wouldn’t happen anywhere in the world right now because photographers are suspect now. We weren’t suspect at all.”
“Up until recent decades, people were proud that a photographer would take an interest in them, said Baz, a freelance photographer in New York’s Hudson River Valley. “It wasn’t voyeuristic, but that’s totally changed. It’s a different matter totally.”
The photographers’ easygoing ways also helped, Baz said.
“To do this type of photography, it takes a certain personality, a certain ability to put people at ease,” he said, “and I think that’s part of the equation.”
They took it all in, going to a hog butchering known as a boucherie, complete with music, and the courir de Mardi Gras, when brightly costumed men on horseback roam the countryside, drinking and committing good-natured mayhem. They photographed trappers and fishers, and people in their shops.
And they went to dance halls.
“That was one of the things that we loved so much: to go to those Saturday night dances, with Cajun music, in pretty much a bare-bones space, and there would be three generations there — grandparents, parents and children,” Baz said. “Even in the ’70s, that wasn’t happening anywhere near where we had lived. We had never seen that kind of family life.”
John H. Lawrence, the exhibit’s curator, first heard of Baz and Traub’s work during a 1980 business trip to New York City. About 30 of their Cajun pictures were featured during the collection’s 2009 symposium on Acadiana.
“That (display) kind of got us talking about something larger that would be accompanied by a publication and give the project a platform and, hopefully, an audience that would appreciate it,” he said.
Planning for this show began around 2015, said Lawrence, who worked with the photographers to decide what should go up on the walls.
Even though the exhibit has nothing to do with New Orleans, “our embrace has always been New Orleans and beyond,” said Lawrence, the collection’s director of museum programs. “Even looking at contact sheets, you could tell that this was a serious observation of a moment in time in Louisiana history, and so it just . . . seemed like this work needed a large Louisiana audience.”
No photograph has a credit line because both men regard the project as a collaborative venture. Besides, Traub said, after nearly 50 years, neither man can remember who shot what.
“We went to everything together,” he said. “We switched cameras between us.”
Besides, Traub said, “we came from similar training. Eventually, our visions welded together.”
Everything is in black and white because, at that time, fine-art photography was in black and white, Baz said, explaining that color photography was deemed suitable only for commercials.
There was a practical reason, too, Traub said: Processing color photographs then would have been something only a professional lab would be able to do.
The thinking about color photography has changed, at least in some circles, in the 46 years since Baz and Traub were scouring Acadiana for photographs.
That isn’t the only thing that has changed. “I went back after Katrina, on another project with some of my graduate students,” Traub said. “Nothing was familiar. Doug went back to Breaux Bridge and had the same reaction.”
During the intervening years, the petroleum industry, which has been a mainstay of the region’s economy, has been through good times and lean times. People have moved away or died, and land has been lost to encroaching water.
“A lot of what is in those pictures is gone,” Baz said.
“One of the things we’ve become more and more aware of is that this was a water culture, and Acadians were moved into that area because nobody else wanted it,” Traub said. “They made their livelihoods and really quite a wonderful culture around it. …
“We hope that the project will remind people of the great danger that climate issues and degradation of that landscape bring not only to the landscape but to the people who live there.”