Review by Gerhard Clausing •
Mardi Gras in New Orleans is an old tradition. Just as is the case in Europe and elsewhere, there are religious and tribal underpinnings to these liberating rituals that have been around for many centuries. Of special importance is the fact that participants can assume alternate identities; they can feel free to use a shared atmosphere of masquerading performances to play roles that take them beyond their more predictable everyday existence.
By painting their faces and/or wearing masks and other accessories, these Mardi Gras revelers are joining groups of individuals that display imaginary alternate figures of their imagination in a celebratory atmosphere that allows them to escape their ordinary realms and transports them into an alternate sphere. Be it to chase away the winter and to welcome spring, or just to have some fun before the more austere Lenten season starts, or just to follow a historical happening in French-based Louisiana, the tradition continues.
Harvey Stein, a highly regarded documentary photographer, who usually prefers to take an extreme wide-angle lens to the streets to capture special moments, for this project achieved the same technique by getting extremely close and personal using an SX-70 Polaroid camera with flash. The portraits of these revelers were taken in 1979, then rested in his studio until recently, to be rediscovered and made into this fascinating time-capsule book for our enjoyment.
The 47 portraits are printed in the actual size of the Polaroid originals. The colors have held up very well, and the quality of the images evokes a kind of dream-like world. We see fantastic getups that take their inspiration from the appearance of animals, space creatures, cartoon characters and other media constructs. Even though what we see is marked by a variety of alienation effects, there is a certain charm that the revelers exude and which Harvey Stein was able to record for posterity. It is clear that Stein does not engage in opportunistic grab shots, as some other street photographers have been known to do, but works at establishing a bit of contact and cooperation from his subjects. Thus, he is able to transmit a feeling of intimacy that shares the special persona each of the participants wants to convey. The essay by Joanna Madloch provides a valuable analysis of the cultural and historical background.
The result is a universally applicable collection of carnival portraits, well printed and paced, in a handsomely produced photobook. It is a particular pleasure to ponder in this year of pandemic uncertainties and restrictions.
Harvey Stein – Then and There: Mardi Gras 1979
Photographer: Harvey Stein (born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, lives in New York City)
Publisher: Zatara Press, Richmond, Virginia, USA; © 2020
Essay: Joanna Madloch
Hardcover with two tipped-in images, stitched binding; 88 pages, paginated, with 47 color photographs; 7.2 x 8.7 inches (18.3 x 22 cm); printed in Spain. Edition: 400. ISBN: 978-1-7338406-1-3
Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s).