Photographer Harold Baquet Shoots New Orleans Through the Creative Lens
If, as they say, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder," Harold Baquet has beheld a lot of beauty over his long career as a professional photographer. For more than thirty years, Baquet has been capturing iconic images of New Orleans through the lenses of his cameras, which have steadily morphed from analog to digital during that time.
As a young man who dreamed of and finally built his first darkroom, fascinated by the "magic" of seeing fixed images materialize in the developing trays, Baquet went on to live out his dream. He worked hard, saved his money and bought the cameras he needed. Then he set up the facilities for developing and printing his own work. Laboring for little or nothing in the beginning, he was initially content to see his name and work in print.
Then he began to get paid. And noticed. His photographs started popping up in publications all over town. Even in the Times-Picayune, when he happened to be the only photog on the scene of a particular event. Then he was hired as the city's official photographer, serving under two successive mayoral administrations.
Over the past thirty-plus years, Baquet has shot everything from plane crashes and murders and hurricane damage to softer, more pleasant subjects like people—the famous and the ordinary—in their daily pursuits.
Today, in his equipment-filled studio on the Loyola University campus, Baquet's darkroom has gone dark. Developing and fixing trays sit dry, bleached by years of chemical wear and tear. Unused sinks, negative processing canisters and top-of-the-line Omega enlargers sit empty, gathering dust. Harold Baquet's new "darkroom" is his computer system, and he loves it. Thousands of images are stored onscreen in digital files instead of in bulky ring binders filled with sleeves of negatives and contact sheets.
Describing the transition from manual to digital, Baquet rcalled, "Back in the late '90s, we started printing more and more color. We were still using film up till about '98 or '99, and then we began to transition into digital. We weren't sure if the whole digital thing would pan out, so we didn't dismantle the darkroom immediately. The first professional digital cameras were very expensive—about $5,000 apiece—but we didn't realize at the time that they paid for themselves in three or four months. We were spending thousands of dollars a month on film and processing. We were still shooting black and white here, but as publication demands changed, printing costs changed. Color became cheaper. And now mostly everything is color."
And, as digital photographic technology evolved, the costs of digital equipment began to drop to more affordable levels. "Today you've got these modern digital cameras and they're miracles of technology," Baquet said. "The cameras today are so smart they haveten years of experience built into the chip. With some of the older cameras, you had to know a little sensitometry. A little science, chemistry and mechanics. Today, nearly everything is done for you."
Further expounding on the miracles of modern technology, he added, "Now you have cameras built into most phones. Some of the most important images I've taken personally have been with my cell phone. It's the one you have in your pocket all the time. It's amazing. It really is."
As the official photographer for Loyola since 1988, Baquet recalled how it all began for him. Born in 1958 in Charity Hospital and raised in the city's culturally vibrant 7th Ward, Baquet realized early in life that a career behind the camera was his destiny.
"As a boy I had a little Kodak Instamatic, one-touch camera," he recalled. "I had a good intuition for graphic rendering, working with that rectangle. I made a couple of good images and it really encouraged me to continue."
As a student at St. Augustine High School, he watched one of his B&W prints being developed in the Dillard University darkroom of his swimming coach and he was hooked forever. "It was just magic. I never forgot that. I just knew after that I would have to have my own darkroom."
When Baquet was in his late teens, radio station WSMB held a photography contest for the best Mardi Gras picture. His mother entered a photograph he had taken underneath the Claiborne overpass of a passing Zulu parade with two young boys sleeping on the curb, despite the noise and commotion around them. The prize he won encouraged him to continue in the field.
Following a post-high school stint in the Louisiana Air National Guard and as a licensed union electrician, Baquet literally moonlighted with his cameras and lenses. Oftentimes at night, after normal working hours, he would be the only photographer on the scene of a breaking event. In addition to his regular photojournalism work with the now-defunct Spectator News Journal, some of his photos were picked up by Figaro and its successor, Gambit. His photos were included in the city's three major African-American newspapers. A few of his pictures even ended up on the front page of the T-P when the daily had no one else readily available to cover a breaking story.
For Baquet, his hobby would become a full-time pursuit. Laid off from a job while still an electrician, he parlayed his unemployment benefits into constructing and outfitting his own darkroom. Once that was set up, work started streaming in. Weddings, special events, even a few commissions. As his reputation for quality work spread, so did the demand for his services.
"Back then, if someone had a newspaper or magazine or other publication, they needed a professionally rendered black and white print with a full range of tones and a full range of contrast in order to reproduce properly in the publication," Baquet said. "I was able to give them what they needed."
Despite the passing of many years, Baquet was still able to talk shop about the equipment and film he used in his early days as a pro. He used primarily Canon cameras in the A and F1 series, Kodak Plus-X film and Diafine pushprocess, two-step developer. "Everything was manual. You had to know what to look for when you were shooting and what you were doing when you brought it back to the lab," he noted.
In the early '80s, Baquet came to the attention of then-mayor Ernest "Dutch" Morial. He was hired as the official city photographer early in Morial's second administration, and was thrust almost immediately into one of his most trying experiences in the field: the July 1982 Pan-Am jetliner crash just outside of the city-owned airport in Kenner.
"Man, that's just something you never forget," he recalled sadly. "It was one of the most traumatic scenes I've ever witnessed. I kind of lost it. I saw the bodies. They were everywhere. Many were naked. I didn't know till then that when you hit the ground at 200 miles per hour your body expands and it rips. People were blown out of their pants and their shirts. I remember crying and gagging. It was awful."
Most of his other experiences in the Morial administration, however, were more pleasant, including meeting his future wife, Cheron Brylski, who was then the head of the Mayor's Offi ce of Public Information. Being the dynamo he was, Morial's daily round of activity kept Baquet and his assistants constantly hopping. Not only did he have to shoot the mayor on the run while hizzoner went on his morning jogs along Bayou St. John, Baquet nearly always had to be a few minutes ahead of the mayor's speaking engagements to set up the podium, the sound system and the city seal. And, after each one, the podium would often have to be broken down and set up again in a new locale.
In addition to being steady, salaried work, the job had also had its fringe benefi ts. "I had a pass that said 'Mayor's Offi ce,' and you could get into almost anything with it." Many years later, even after the pass had long expired, Baquet was still able to use it to get past National Guard checkpoints and into the Lower Ninth Ward to photograph Katrina fl ooding and damage. Some of the shots he took there in the fall of 2005 were of award-winning quality.
Following the end of Morial's term in 1986, Baquet stayed on to work for his successor, Sidney Barthelemy, for two years. Hired by Loyola in 1988, Baquet has been there ever since. His position has allowed him to have several exhibitions of his work on campus and elsewhere around town, including museums. He has given a number of talks and seminars on photography and the photographic techniques that have worked so well for him.
Still, despite the obvious advantages to digital photography, Baquet sometimes waxes nostalgic about the old days. "In the photographic world, a silver-based analog print is more valuable than an inkjet print. It's a science. You really had to learn about lighting. You used to carry a light meter and have to meter out every shot. And until you processed that fi lm, you had no way of knowing if that assignment was successful. Many times I wouldn't go to sleep until I processed my fi lm. I had to know that what I did came out OK."
"Today (with digital equipment) we tend to shoot everything," B aquet added. "Back then you had to judge what to shoot and that's what they paid you for. That's what made you a professional photographer. You didn't get a chance to come back and shoot it again. So you had to get it right the fi rst time."
In professional photographic circles, the term "composition" is often bandied about. When asked exactly how composition can be defi ned, Baquet explained that it is the combination of many different aspects of the craft.
"There's a technical aspect to photography involving the light and the chemistry and the exposure and focus. The aperture, your shutter speed. The technical end of it, but there's also a graphic aspect of photography. And not only does it require technical competence, it also requires graphic competence in the way you construct your rectangles. And that's basically what you're doing."
He went on to explain how, with modern technology, it's now possible to shoot in shapes that were previously unattainable through standard lenses: verticals as well as longer-thannormal rectangles. "Instead of 4 by 5 rectangles, you can shoot 1 by 8, 1 by 12 proportional rectangles, vertical as well as horizontal. You may get an assignment to shoot something for a sidebar on a web page eight times as long as it is wide. Or eight times as wide as it is long. Learning these graphic tools as well as the technical tools of photography is part of the language of composition."
Summing up his assessment of the photographic profession, both past and present, Baquet had these fi nal words. "One of the things you have to acknowledge about photography is there is a portion of the process that is out of your control. Pulitzer Prizes have been won by persons who are in the right place at the right time with an Instamatic camera. Regardless of your preparations, your anticipation, you can set up subject, set up lighting and try to control every aspect of it, but you still have to acknowledge that there's a part of the process that is out of your control. That's the part that will always be magic and it's always something wonderful to work with."