Born in Chicago, Charles Muir Lovell lives and works in New Orleans. He holds an MFA in photography from Central Washington University and a BS in photography from East Texas State University. He began photographing as a young man traveling throughout Europe and South America. He continued his photography practice during his over 20 years as a museum director and curator, a career that took him from the Pacific Northwest to the Southwest and Deep South, everywhere finding distinctive cultures and photography subjects.
Lovell has long been passionate about photographing people within their cultures. Upon moving to New Orleans in 2008, he began documenting the city's second line parades, social aid and pleasure clubs, and brass bands, capturing and preserving for posterity a unique and vibrant part of Louisiana's rich cultural heritage. An earlier series based on religious processions in Mexico, El Favor de los Santos, was a Rockefeller Foundation–supported international traveling exhibition and resulted in a book published in 1999 by the University of New Mexico Press, Art and Faith in Mexico.
Lovell's photographs have been exhibited nationally and internationally, are found in several permanent collections, including the New Orleans Museum of Art and the Historic New Orleans Collection, and can be seen at www.charleslovell.com
and on Instagram @charleslovellart
. He received the 2020 Michael P. Smith Documentary Photographer of the Year Award from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.
Lovell has also developed a series of photographs called Language of the Streets he began while an artist-in-residence at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy, in 2006–2007. He returned to Venice for a second residency in 2015 and was scheduled to return in 2021 until coronavirus shut everything down. He has continued this series in Naples, Paris, Mexico City, New York and New Orleans.
"As a young man, I traveled through Europe and Latin America with my Nikon, living as one of the family with friends in the countries I visited. My travels hugely influenced my work, opening my eyes to how other people lived. As a visual artist, I gravitated toward photographing people within their cultures, trying to capture on film something true about their lives. College and grad school took me to small-town Texas (Commerce) and Washington (Ellensburg), and a long museum career took me to the Pacific Northwest (Tacoma), Southwest (Yuma, Ariz.; Las Cruces and Taos, N.M.) and Deep South (Greenville and Greensboro, N.C., and New Orleans); everywhere I found distinctive cultures and compelling photography subjects. While living in New Mexico, I traveled in Mexico photographing Holy Week religious processions, foreshadowing my current and most significant photographic project: documenting and preserving New Orleans' unique second line parade culture.
Upon moving to New Orleans, I became fascinated by the pageantry and celebratory nature of the city's African American cultural tradition of second line parades. I was captivated by their visual richness, their ritual and history, and how they express a vibrant cultural and artistic heritage, intensely alive yet intimately connected to the past. The massive amount of industry that the social aid and pleasure clubs invest in creating their magnificent costumes, decorations, baskets, umbrellas and banners-truly a labor of love-blew me away. Documenting these visually stunning parades quickly became a passion-and a commitment. For more than 10 years, I've followed the weekly parades, taking tens of thousands of color photographs. I've formed friendly relationships with members of the social aid and pleasure clubs that stage the parades, allowing me behind-the-scenes access, resulting in distinctive photographs. My color photographs vividly capture the paraders and brass bands in their elaborate custom-designed, hand-sewn costumes, and the dancing parade followers, revealing the festive mood of these sacred moments of cultural celebration, and preserving them for posterity. I take great care to portray these spirited-and spiritual-ceremonial moments honestly, sensitively and respectfully.
In the 20th century other American photographers-notably Ralston Crawford, Lee Friedlander and Michael P. Smith - also documented this cultural tradition, but in black and white. My use of color lets me capture not just the atmosphere of the parades but also their incredible vividness. Formerly I used traditional photographic techniques, but now I embrace new digital methods, bringing to the subject a fresh approach for the 21st century.
Taken as a whole, my photographs capture the rich cultural history of second-line parades, a significant artistic and ceremonial tradition deeply rooted in New Orleans' African American culture and unparalleled elsewhere in the United States. I hope that my photographs will increase awareness of the importance of preserving second-line parade culture and contribute to the understanding of Louisiana and its culture, which has sometimes suffered from scholarly neglect and seemingly insurmountable cultural and economic challenges.
Another photographic series I have pursued over the years is Language of the Streets, which began taking shape in 2007 during an artist residency at the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy. After working in large-format silver gelatin and color photography for over 20 years, I began exploring digital photography using a small-format digital camera. Upon my return to New Mexico, I learned digital printing and exhibited my Venice work at a solo exhibition at the Taos Center for the Arts in 2008.
My residency in Venice was extremely influential in the work I began doing after moving to New Orleans in 2008. I began using a medium-format digital camera to make higher-resolution color photographs. Since 2009, I have fully transitioned to a digital practice. I make my own prints on an Epson inkjet printer and work with professional printers on larger works. From the experience of taking street photographs in Venice, I continued my series Language of the Streets in New Orleans, as well as in Naples, the Amalfi Coast, Paris, Mexico City and New York City. In 2015, I was invited back to the Emily Harvey Foundation, where I designed and presented an accordion artist's book, or leporello, featuring the Venice series of photos.
Off the Street: New Orleans and Venice, part of the Language of the Streets series, investigates similarities and differences between the two cities, which share a striking mixture of high and low, old and new, closeness to and dependence upon water, a vital tourism sector, a proliferation of graffiti and outdoor art alongside unparalleled historic architecture. My street photographs from the two cities explore back streets not seen by tourists frequenting commercial settings like the French Quarter or Plaza San Marco. I strive to capture the texture of the cities' largely unseen back streets.
Both cities also have world-renowned contemporary art competitions: the Venice Biennale and the triennial Prospect New Orleans. Works from my Venice series were exhibited alongside photographs from Mexico City in 2016 at the Contemporary Art Center, New Orleans, in Experiments in Anarchitecture, curated by Andrea Andersson, and in 2017, works from the Venice series were included in Project 387, curated by Berty Skuber at the Archivio Emily Harvey in Venice. "
-- Charles Muir Lovell