Syndey Byrd, the renowned documentary photographer whose work chronicled the city's music, Carnival celebrations and cultural scene in a career that captured some 50,000 images and 40 years, died Friday. She was 71.
Friend Bethany Bultman of the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation confirmed Byrd died Friday at the Carrington Place nursing facility after a long illness.
Just this past year, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival featured a retrospective photo exhibit of some of her work showcasing New Orleans music greats, both on stage and off. Byrd was a fixture at the annual festival, always with cameras in hand to capture musical moments and the cultural scene which the event has preserved and enhanced.
"Clad in voluminous flowery skirts and blouses, with her long hair often tied up in loose braids and camera bags dangling in every direction off her shoulders, Byrd and her assistant du jour stood out from the typical sweaty scrum of fest photographers, most of them men carelessly clad in khaki, shorts, ragged T-shirts and caps," wrote Katy Reckdahl in a New Orleans Advocate profile last year.
The Jazz Fest exhibit featured her photo of a young, short "Trombone Shorty" leading a parade; a smiling James Booker, on stage and toasting the crowd with a beer can at the 1976 festival; beloved married couples Ernie and Antoinette K-Doe and Danny and Blue Lu Barker; Professor Longhair at ease inside his car, arm dangling over the driver's seat; and a heartwarming photo of a young Byrd, arm in arm with Aaron and Art Neville, with her camera bag draped around her neck.
Two of her other well-known photos were of Fats Domino, which graced his "Christmas Gumbo" CD cover. One featured the iconic musician seated on his vintage Cadillac couch, with Byrd's dog, a small white bichon frise, plopped down on Domino's lap for the photo. Her own favorite photo of herself was by fellow great Herman Leonard, and featured Byrd laying on top of her satin-sheeted bed, holding two of her dogs.
In addition to photographing musicians, Byrd also spent many years chronicling the city's Carnival celebrations – both in high society (backstage at the Proteus ball or Meeting of the Courts of Rex and Comus) to African-American clubs and street parades and even the celebrations of Cajun country.
Gambit art critic D. Eric Bookhardt described Byrd as "one of the most tenacious and prolific of Mardi Gras photographers." Publisher Arthur Hardy dedicated his 2015 Mardi Gras Guide to her and featured a retrospective of some of her work.
"You have to get them to relax, and then 'step outside of themselves,'" she was quoted by Hardy as saying of her subjects. "I try to make people who think they are ordinary feel as if they are truly extraordinary. Everyone has a little bit of magic in them. My job is to bring it out."
Most of her photos were on color slides and hundreds of undeveloped negatives were discovered and rescued after Hurricane Katrina – stored inside a refrigerator, friends recalled. There are plans to archive and catalogue the images, but the process will be a slow one, friends said, since her collection was not well-organized and she loved to take photos faster than she could develop or archive them.
A native of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, Byrd earned a degree in painting from Ole Miss. After graduating, she moved to New York to work in the field of interior design, then embarked on a two-year journey across the United States by car. She moved to New Orleans in the mid-1970s. Here she studied with Ernst Haas, a legendary Austrian photojournalist. Friends and students said his mentorship changed Byrd's perspective and set her on a new career path. Although her work was exhibited internationally in exhibits, books and documentaries, and included trips to Haiti, China and France, it is her New Orleans work which is best known and was closest to her heart.
Byrd is survived by her husband, Noel Prell, and a niece.
A memorial second line is planned at a later date. Her final wishes also included scattering some of her ashes in Mexico and Italy. The remainder, Bultman said, will be scattered in the Mississippi River by the Society of St. Anne in its annual Mardi Gras morning ritual.