Catapulting us right into the throbbing pulse of a hot Louisiana night, Rick Olivier’s project is a decade-long documentation of the French Creole music and culture of zydeco. In his photographs, it’s Saturday night in Southwest Louisiana, and the bars and clubs along ‘crawfish circuit’ are heating up to the vibrant tones of accordion-accented live music. A rich blend of Afro-Caribbean rhythms, Creole folk and American blues, R&B, country and Cajun music with hints of European influences, zydeco remained relatively local until hitting the mainstream in the ’50s.
Olivier, who hails from South Louisiana himself, first began photographing the musicians of Acadiana—the French Louisiana region—in the late ’80s when the music scene was experiencing a booming revival following a stint of unpopularity in the ’60s. It is said that the native Louisiana style takes its name from the French expression ‘les haricots ne sont pas salés,’ translated as ‘the green beans aren’t salty’ or, in other words: times are rough. Traditionally sung in French, the evolution of the genre holds within it histories of migration, hardship and expression. From intimate house parties that lasted well into the night, the scene soon grew into a community in itself. Seeking out the clubs and key figures at the heart of it, Olivier’s project grew into a book of 80 portraits—made with the help of journalist and musician Ben Sandmel—that explores the rural roots of the genre and the complex regional culture that continues to feed the music.
Zydeco is kept alive, and built on, from generation to generation. Photographing the dancefloors and prairies of the Acadiana in black and white, Olivier’s monochrome portraits capture the broad spectrum of people that make and enjoy the music, right from the veterans of the genre to its future stars. “I chose to make these photographs in the style of classic black and white silver gelatin media because it best expresses the continuity of tradition we find in the music,” Olivier explains in his statement. “The stringent demands of archival silver processing and printing are mirrored in the musical devotion to craft and tradition we can still find in contemporary musicians like Geno Delafose and Nathan Williams.”
Editor’s Note: We discovered Rick Olivier’s work when he was selected as a finalist for our first ever LensCulture Black & White Photography Awards! Check out the other incredible work from our winners and finalists here.