Douglas Baz/Charles H. Traub, Cajun Document: Acadiana, 1973-1974

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by The Historic New Orleans Collection (here). Hardcover (11×10 inches), 164 pages, with 163 black-and-white photographic reproductions. Includes foreword by John H. Lawrence, and a preface by the two photographers. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In the winter of 1973, Douglas Baz and Charles Traub, recent graduates from the masters program in photography at the Institute of Design, were staring out their windows at the chilly wastes of Chicago when they decided they badly needed a change of scenery. Warmth and sunshine were the top priorities. And so, loading their International Harvester Scout with cameras in four formats (4×5, medium-format, 35 mm.) along with boxes of sheet and roll film, the pair headed south along the Great River Road, which parallels the Mississippi River from Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico.

Pausing along the way to eat and photograph, they would routinely seek the advice of locals about promising attractions. During one of these rest stops, at a diner outside Baton Rouge, a stranger opined that they might want to turn west and take a drive across the newly opened Atchafalaya Basin Bridge along Interstate 10, into the heart of Acadiana or Cajun country.

It’s hard to convey now the reclusion of the Cajuns at that time or, to put it another way, the widespread ignorance of almost all Americans, including the two photographers, about Acadiana’s unique and improbable history. School children outside of this small area were not taught how and why a group of French-speakers, expelled by the British in the 18th century from the Maritime provinces of Canada, had migrated down and across the U.S. and ended up forming their own community, alongside Native American tribes and free Blacks and ex-slaves, in the middle of Louisiana.

Baz and Traub arrived several years before the world became intoxicated by the magical spices of Cajun food and music. Paul Prudhomme’s K-Paul’s Kitchen did not open in New Orleans until 1979, and Cajun fiddle and accordion tunes—represented most prominently by the Zydeco of Clifton and Cleveland Chenier—found a national audience only in the 1980s.

As Baz and Traub write in the preface: “We spent the first ten days of that trip photographing the Cajun countryside, growing more and more incredulous that a culture so distinctive and foreign to us could exist in the United States.”

The 163 photographs here, edited from some 3,000 negatives, are the result of those ten days in 1973 and of six months in 1974, when they returned and headquartered in the town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, about 10 miles from the Acadian hub of Lafayette.

The book opens topographically, with aerial views of the watery Atchafalaya Basin. It then introduces some of the latest technological structures, such as the bridge on I-10, that were altering horizons and livelihoods. Portraits of oil rigs and workers in these early pages suggest that Baz and Traub in their 21st century edit want to acknowledge Robert J. Flaherty’s Louisiana Story, a 1948 docufiction film about conflict in the region between time-honored agricultural and capitalist-progressive ways of life.

It’s clear which side the photographers support. The body of their work here examines the lands and waters that surround and sustain the residents in the towns. The economy of Acadiana was—and in many ways still is—based on fishing, oystering, shrimping, clamming, and crabbing in the rivers and bayous, and on hunting and farming. Photographs of trees in the water, and of ghostly lines on their trunks, notate that flooding and hurricanes are part of the region’s history, too.

Portraits of men in boats, pulling up and repairing nets, segue into records of the dry land estuarial activities around country stores, where bored teenagers with daringly long hair hang around the front; a customer reclines for a shave in a pristine barbershop; and Mama Thibo stands with a tray of crabs in her restaurant kitchen. (As the white proprietress, she stares at the camera while her African-American staff looks elsewhere.)

This is street photography in a rural setting. A man in sunglasses hikes up a leg of his pants to show off a silver-tipped custom-tooled cowboy boot, resting it on the front window sill of Blanchard’s Shoe and Leather Repair Shop. A woman in a sundress and tennis shoes holds open a screen door beneath a hand-painted sign for Schwet’s Cafe (no accent) while surrounded by manufactured signs for Old Milwaukee beer, 7 Up, and bread that “stays fresher longer.”

The pace quickens when the photographers enter the music and eating clubs. Bodies cluster around tables, on stage and on the dance floor. The frames of the pictures can barely contain the flying elbows and feet. The Chenier brothers are portrayed close up, in full cry, Cleveland on washboard, Clifton on accordion.

Baz and Traub write in their preface that they would discuss at night, as they processed film in their bathroom-darkroom, how to be as faithful as possible anthropologically to what they were seeing, all the while knowing that as outsiders their perspective was limited.

Presenting the material roots of Arcadian economic life became a priority. In the countryside they photographed the butchering of a hog and the seeding of rice, visited a quilt maker, carvers of bird decoys and of birdhouses, chicken farmers, and harvesters of moss. The most extensive series in the book shares in the celebratory mood of Cajun rituals, such as the Breaux Bridge Crawfish Festival and the riotous Mardi Gras horse races and parades. The final pages are devoted to a wedding, where custom dictates that the groom gets his own cake. As a quiet coda, a da capo ending, the book concludes with two photographs of white clapboard churches and three placid marshy landscapes.

Flipping through the pages, one wouldn’t guess that the photographers had graduated from the Institute of Design. No modernist angles or experimental points of view are brought to bear. There isn’t any fixed single style. Baz and Traub move interchangeably between formats, mix flash and natural light, wide-angle and “normal” lenses. Oddly (or do I mean selflessly?) the images are captioned but aren’t given authorship, as if theirs had been a joint comradely effort for which neither deserves sole credit.

They have titled their 1973-74  project a “Document.” The deliberately understated and somewhat neutral word implies an intent less totalizing than, say, Robert Frank’s. He called his cross-country travelogue The Americans, the definite article lending his mordant group portrait a sociological authority. Baz and Traub are more modest about what they witnessed. Their title may be an homage to their teacher at the Institute of Design, Aaron Siskind, who titled his book on uptown Manhattan, published in 1981, Harlem Document: Photographs 1932-1940.

And here is the part of the review where I have to note solemnly that Baz and Traub did not “discover” Cajun culture before the rest of America and that they were in a sense ethnographic interlopers. Both are self-described city boys. Although Traub was born in Kentucky, both men were educated in the North and went on to found photography programs there: Baz at Bard College, Traub at the School for Visual Arts.

The list of northerners who have photographed the South with devotional care sometimes begins and ends with the WPA canon of Walker Evans, Ben Shahn, Marion Post Wolcott, Carl Mydans, and Dorothea Lange in the 1930s. But the infatuation has been continuous and includes Lee Friedlander’s portraits of New Orleans’ places and people, from the 1960s to the present, Henry Horenstein’s albums of country musicians and bars in Nashville and elsewhere in the ‘70s, as well as Mike Smith’s landscapes of eastern Tennessee and Mark Steinmetz’s of Atlanta and Atlantans.

The historian John Lawrence adds many more in his foreword, including two, Theodore Fonville Winans and Todd Webb who photographed in Acadiana after World War II. Lawrence also provides helpful context about the Cajun Renaissance, begun in the late 1960s and nurtured by the state-funded Council for the Development of French in Louisiana.

This handsome book of the 1970s will further that worthy cause. I suspect, however, that the craftsmanship of Baz and Traub will be most gratefully received by the living relatives of the people in these photographs. Most of the subjects will have passed on by now or will have forgotten that they once stood still for a second or two before a couple of long-haired strangers with funny accents.

Baz and Traub, as they immersed themselves in this gumbo of a culture, savoring and photographing a slice of Americana they could not have imagined was there had they not stumbled upon it, must have had bruises every day from pinching themselves. The generosity of the Acadians is evident throughout. They deserve much of the credit for the success of this book. But one cannot help being touched and even proud that the respectful curiosity of a couple of northern outsiders earned them sufficient trust to be allowed into private homes and clubs. Cajun Document is proof that they did not squander or betray it.

Collector’s POV: Neither Charles Traub nor Douglas Baz appears to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As such, interested collectors should follow up directly with the artists via their websites (linked in the sidebar).

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