NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) presents Picture Man: Portraits by Polo Silk, on view July 16, 2022–January 8, 2023. For more than three decades, Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell (American, born 1964) has been photographing New Orleans, creating a unique body of work that blends elements of portraiture, fashion, performance, and street photography. Picture Man explores how Polo Silk blends all of those elements and illustrates his contributions in the history of American photography. The exhibition features more than 35 images by Silk spanning 20 years from 1987–2007, with an emphasis on the 1990s.
“Through his years of documenting seminal moments in New Orleans, Polo Silk’s name and photos have become synonymous with New Orleans culture,” said Susan Taylor, Montine McDaniel Freeman Director. “NOMA’s exhibition celebrates Polo’s work and underscores his role in New Orleans’ visual tapestry.”
Polo Silk mobilized the traditional brick-and-mortar portrait studio, moving out into the streets and clubs of New Orleans to create an adaptable, on-the-spot method of picture making. In the course of his career, Silk perfected the use of instant-photo technology, making one-of-a-kind portraits that capitalized on the vibrant color range and immediacy that is a hallmark of Polaroid and other instant films. The portraits Silk sold on demand have become an integral part of how many Black New Orleanians have used photography to represent themselves.
“Picture Man emphasizes Polo’s skills as a portrait artist through his in-depth understanding of the strengths of his chosen cameras and films,” said exhibition curator and Assistant Curator of Photographs Brian Piper. “These photographs illustrate that great portraits are a collaboration between a photographer and their subjects.”
Silk’s pictures are often taken in front of colorful airbrushed backdrops painted by his cousin Otis Spears (American, born 1969) that feature figures from hip-hop and bounce music, fashion brands, and sports logos—two of Spears’ backdrops will be on view in Picture Man. In bringing photography out of the studio and directly to the people, Silk made it a truly accessible phenomenon in a time before instantaneous posting to social media existed. While traditional portrait photographs were often designed to appear timeless and placeless, Silk’s photos are fixed in time, and rooted in New Orleans. The photographs in this exhibition are also records of uniquely New Orleans events like Super Sunday and places like Club Detour that were important social spaces for Black New Orleans in the 1980s and 90s.
Together, Silk and his subjects have created an exceptional visual archive of time and place, a suite of pictures that highlight Black expression, individuality, and ultimately, a collective community identity.