A color photo book presenting the photography of Christopher Porche West of Black Mardi Gras Indians in New Orleans.
Christopher Porché West is an award-winning photographer and artist who has been documenting the people and culture of News Orleans for 30 years. A native Californian with Franco-European roots in Louisiana, Porché West first came to New Orleans in the late 1970’s on a fellowship from the University of California at Santa Cruz. It was during this period when he began forming the major focus of his artistic career – New Orleans’ Franco-Creole culture – by researching the antebellum era “Les Gens de Couleur Libres” or free people of color.
Captivated by the city, he returned in 1981 to undertake a self-directed photo-documentary on the daily lives and cultural activity of contemporary New Orleans Creoles of Color and African Americans, including the elaborate costumes of Mardi Gras Indians, passing rites, community occurrences, neighborhood scenes and jazz funerals. These photographic surveys led to the development of a permanent exhibit for the Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve Visitor Center in the Vieux Carré.
In 1995 he returned to and settled in New Orleans, and established a temporary studio to accommodate solely formal portraiture in a controlled environment for individual members of many different tribes of the Black Mardi Gras Indians. In all, 40 different Indians were persuaded to collaborate in the effort: the first and only time that the Indians themselves were part of the process of their own documentation. After years of photographing this colorful local culture, his artwork made its debut at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival in 1996 and was featured there for the following 12 years.
Approaching his third decade as a professional photographer, Porché West began exploring new mediums of creative expression, while also expanding the thematic focus of his work beyond New Orleans’ Franco-Creole culture. Recycling scraps of wrought iron, aged cypress, window frames and other found materials from the streets of New Orleans, Porché West began creating handcrafted, one-of-a-kind ensembles through which to view his imagery. These “assemblages”, three-dimensional art works that are part photograph and part sculpture, debuted in 1998 at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, and in 1999 won the Festival’s Best Display Award in its Contemporary Crafts showcase.
The themes and subjects of his photography similarly progressed during this period, leading him to venture abroad. From 1998 to 2000 Porché West thrice traveled to Haiti as part of a humanitarian aid mission sponsored by the New Orleans-based American Haitian Development Association, where he found further expressions of Franco-Creole culture while photographing the lives and customs of everyday Haitians. A strong interest in Carnival traditions led him to visit Cuba in 2003 where he documented their Afro-Latino customs and culture. Two years later he found himself in Liberia, photographing people and places that could have just as easily hailed from communities in Cuba, Haiti, or the bayous of Louisiana.
Porché West has been featured in over 40 exhibitions. Most notably, in the summer of 2003 he was singularly selected to commemorate the Louisiana Bicentennial in Paris, the heart of Francophone art and culture, where he exhibited at the Festival L’esprit Jazz à Saint Germain des Prés. Collections of his work can be found in the archives of the Historic New Orleans Collection, the New Orleans Museum of Art, Harvard University, the Amistad Research Center at Tulane University and the University of California at San Diego, as well as in numerous private holdings.
Porché West currently lives and works in one of New Orleans’ oldest neighborhoods, Bywater, founded in 1809, where he continues to document and preserve the culture and life of New Orleans and its people.