Serendipity often explains those things that many believe are of divine order – generous happenstance aligned with one’s desires. Yet how one arrives at their subject is the stuff of legend and lore for many photographers, prompting many to discover more than anticipated such as their own personal truth and declaration of their own humanity. And a light-hearted invitation to New Orleans for photographer Jonathan Mannion presented exactly that - an opportunity to rediscover New Orleans with harnessed divine light.
It was in the early 90’s when Mannion first began his love affair with the Crescent City. Lured by its storied reputation of decadence, opulence and history, Mannion would continue to regularly shoot New Orleans as subject and backdrop as he evolved from novice shutterbug to celebrated professional photographer and music video director. With a demanding shooting schedule that sent the Cleveland native all over the world, Mannion longed to return to a simple process of man and camera interacting with humanity, the very impetus that brought him to photography.
“I decided to return to my roots as a photographer, to shoot raw with no plans, no lights, no extra equipment – just a camera, an alert eye and an open mind.”
Yet it was a gracious invitation from friend/actor/rapper, yasiin bey (formerly known as “Mos Def”), who had just bought a home in New Orleans, that pulled Mannion back to the Big Easy once again. No occasion, no music video, no Mardi Gras – just an opportunity to visit with an old friend. But it was also a chance for Mannion to be enraptured once again by the magic of New Orleans and to catch smoke with his lens.
Armed only with a Leica S2, three lenses (35 mm, 70 mm and 120 mm macro) and two friends to assist in the process, Mannion and his small crew headed for New Orleans with the objective of filling 20 blank pages and a cover for S Magazine. Arriving without any logistics set up, he conscripted a shuttle bus driver named Greg and began asking questions about the city and its people. And so began a relentless nine-day tour to discover the truth of NOLA, one referral at a time, guided by an endearing passion to discover and document the dreams and secrets revealed in the faces of its citizens and resilient structures.
“I’d go and talk with one guy, take some pictures and then he’d refer me to somebody else. I’d go to the next spot, meet the referral, take a few pictures then that person would lead me to somebody else. It felt like the whole city knew each other and everyone seemed really enthusiastic to help me complete the next contribution to the journey with suggestions on who to meet, where to eat and what had to be seen. But what struck me the most was that they were really proud to give the suggestions, proud of their city and its amazing people. And they were aware that they were part of the process with me. They were my subjects and I became their subject. I felt an almost overwhelming sense of love and purpose with this realization as I moved from person to person. My trip was coming alive.”
The generosity of strangers and notables gave Mannion direct contact with iconic New Orleans moments like the famed Super Sunday parade of the Mardi Gras Indians and legendary personalities like the Treme Brass Band and Trombone Shorty to everyday people who are the life blood of the city. Instantly, Mannion made a lot of new friends.
By the ninth day, bey finally arrived with two hours of daylight left for the whole trip. Mannion was scheduled to leave the following morning but he was not dismayed. Rather, he embraced the moment to reconnect with bey and document his new home, having discovered much more about New Orleans and its people than he expected. bey’s invitation may have served as a conduit for Mannion’s personal discovery and reaffirmation of his artistic truth. Maybe bey knew that Mannion needed time alone in the city without pretense or occasion to experience his own epiphany, find his own answers. And maybe sometimes searching for the answers is more fulfilling than the answers themselves.
These images document what the generous city of New Orleans shared with Mannion during those nine days of discovery, framing the answers he sought with divine light and pure honesty. Serendipity indeed.
by Marcus J. Guillory
(Article featured in Leica's "S Magazine", Issue 2)