Over 40 years on from his photoessay on New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Bruce Gilden revisits his project with Jocks&Nerds. Images from which will also be published in an upcoming book entitled 'Hey Mister, Throw Me Some Beads'
New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, which precedes the penitential season of Lent, was experiencing a mass of changes in the 1970s. It was during this time that a 27-year-old Bruce Gilden, drawn towards the festivities' masked and costumed characters, decided to embark on his first photoessay outside of his hometown in New York.
“The parade calendar, which had grown from 20 processions in 1960 to 33 by 1970,” notes Mardi Gras expert Arthur Hardy, “saw even greater expansion, reaching 51 parades by 1980.”
While the large processions were banned from the narrow streets of New Orleans’ French Quarter in 1973, the Mardi Gras was evolving into a more socially inclusive event. In 1972, the Mystick Krewe of Apollo hosted the first gay ball at the Municipal Auditorium.
It's a town like anywhere about prestige. It's a good old boys club
But among this modernization, there was one central factor that remained the same since the first Mardi Gras parades in 1837, it's debauched 11-day celebrations.
Coming from the Latin words carnis for flesh and vale for farewell, Carnival encouraged sexual liberties and intoxication in the run-up to Mardi Gras and continued in full force in the 1970s. Still providing the opportunity for individuals to explore their deepest eccentricities behind the comfort of a mask and costume – something that Gilden hoped to capture.
Thus, in January 1974, with his wife and Leica M4 – albeit with no flash – Bruce Gilden set off down to New Orleans...
Q. What made you decide to go to New Orleans?
What happened is I'd seen some pictures by people who later became my friends. Charlie Gatewood was one. There was a picture I really liked – I can't find here, I have it in a book somewhere – it's a guy dressed in a Roman gladiator costume with two regular guys in it holding beers and leaning against a car.
I like characters. My father was a character, I'm a character, it's always been my interest
I'd seen some other pictures from photographers who were going down to the Mardi Gras and I said, why not go. The only essay I was doing at that time was in the summer in Coney Island, which in the winter is pretty flat. I also hadn't started any New York City work yet.