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Zack Smith: Capturing Jazz Fest Frame By Frame

Jason Saul

As the second weekend of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival kicks off, here on All Things New Orleans we’re highlighting one of the behind-the-scenes people running around the Fairgrounds.

Zack Smith is one of three official Jazz Fest photographers, working to capture the musicians’ performances, as well as some moments of revelry and relaxing between stages. And he has tips for all of us to capture the festival experience in pictures.

The official photographer of Jazz Fest. What does that role entail?

It’s a wide-spanning role, one that I take a lot of pride in. Basically documenting the stages of Jazz Fest, the musicians, the good times, the dancing, a little bit of the in-between — like maybe some contemporary crafts, some Native American village on the way. Maybe a little bit of food. But mostly the focus is the music, which is a large percent of why the people are at the Fairgrounds on those weekends.

Different festivals call for different approaches and techniques. What is different about Jazz Fest?

What is different about Jazz Fest in my opinion is Jazz Fest feels more like a hustle for me, personally. You’re in an enclosed area. You’ve got about an hour to get around to at least four to five groups. So I’m in charge of a few stages, just to clarify: the Fais Do Do, the Congo Square, the new Samsung Galaxy, the Economy Hall, and Jazz and Heritage. So, mostly for me, Jazz Fest is about organizing my time. So, 11 a.m., getting from Fais Do Do to Economy is different than 4:45 p.m. So I have to factor in those things as the day progresses, and as the people start having more fun, getting in your way. But I love it.

You also work for French Quarter Fest. What’s different about that?

French Quarter Fest has a very significant backdrop: the French Quarter. The river. The architecture and culture. So your goal is to weave the music, the people and the good times within the construct of New Orleans as a city. It’s a different approach in that, I feel at Jazz Fest, I’m only in each stage for a little while. So I need to find the magic pretty quick, and at French Quarter Fest, you kind of open yourself up to the magic and it slowly comes to you after two and three days.

Magic is an interesting term to hear you use. What is it that is the fascination of shooting at festivals? For yourself, perhaps, and for anyone who might want to.

For me what is paramount is telling a story. Period. That’s the thing that I’m trying to do, is tell the story of that festival. And when the magic happens is when a background and a foreground and a subject all relate and meet in your lens to tell that whole story in one picture. Now I know we can’t get each festival told in one picture, right? But all the while you’re looking for that magic moment. It really keeps you on your toes, because if you blink, if you look down at the back of your camera to check out the last picture you took, it’s happening right in front of you. And you’re missing it, you know? It’s a challenge.

You do other kinds of photography work, too. How does your festival work compare and contrast with that?

The majority of the work I do through the year is mostly portrait-based, and 75 percent of it is local artist promotion. Whether it’s a press packet or an EPK — an electronic press kit — or an album cover, or editorial through magazines like Offbeat, Spin, Sonic. And mostly I’m working with the musicians that I’m working with day-to-day on each stage. So it’s almost a continuation of a relationship we have at these festivals.

You talk about helping artists — you also help people take better pictures for themselves. You’ve been conducting workshops, spending a few hours with people from time to time. Perhaps you’d be so kind as to pass along some of the general tips you impart at those workshops?

Yes! The best advice I can give them is to follow your passions in what you want to see and to participate in. If you love music, then photograph the music. If you love photographing people in candids and portraits, then photograph that. Once you’ve figured out that part, it gets so much easier than looking at the festival and trying to document the whole thing. So, compartmentalize what you want to shoot and break it down from there. Have a goal, break down the festival, but it’s those small details that escape us sometimes. Like, bring an extra battery. Go get some Dr. Scholl’s; put them in your shoes. Drink lots of water. Extra memory cards. And from a photographic standpoint, one thing that I’ve told most of my classes that I teach is to own your image and shoot for the wall. Compose your image as if you’re going to print it and put it on the wall. And if you have that approach to your photography, you’re going to shoot less and get a better overall quality picture.

The ice cream vendors like it when it’s hot. The sunglass vendors like it when it’s sunny outside. What about you? What makes it a great day for you to shoot at Jazz Fest?

Well, eight hours of sleep and a nice overcast day. I think that if I’ve got the sun diffused, I’ve got an evenly-lit background and subject arrangement and it’s a much easier way to see. You have less contrast. You have more even light spectrum. It just makes things run a little bit smoother when you have an overcast day, for sure.

A current exhibit of Zack Smith’s fine art portrait work is on display now at the Scott Edwards Gallery, 2109 Decatur St.

Jack is a Program Host and Producer at WWNO and has been with the station since 2003. He hosts and produces Saturday Night Jazz. He also serves as the station's Public Service and Jazz Coordinator.