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New Orleans Second Lines

Charles Lovell | Louisiana, United States

Nkrumah Better Boys Second Line New Orleans, 2022 from ongoing series of New Orleans Second Lines, Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs, and Jazz Funerals

Since moving to New Orleans in 2008, I have documented and preserved a record of New Orleans’ “second line” parades, capturing for posterity images of a unique and vital part of New Orleans’ Black cultural heritage. Although the term “second line” comes from the dancing and strutting followers of a parading brass band, it encompasses the entire parade—the brass band (the “first line,” or “main line”) and its followers (the “second line”). I have taken tens of thousands of color photographs of the second lines by following the weekly parades, which run most of the year, except for holidays, Jazz Fest, and the hottest part of summer—and which were canceled last year because of coronavirus, but resumed during the summer of 2021. I have formed relationships with the social aid and pleasure clubs that sponsor the parades, allowing me greater access and ease of navigation, resulting in varied and distinctive photographs that vividly capture the paraders in their elaborate hand-sewn costumes and parasols, and the dancing parade followers.




My documentray photographic study on the culturally and historically important—and unique-to-New Orleans—subject of second line parades, jazz funerals, and social aid and pleasure clubs, culminating in a forthcoming major book, Back When the Good Times Rolled: Charles Muir Lovell Second Line Photographs. Two exhibitions of my second line photographs with this title (parts I and II) were exhibited at the Second Story Gallery in New Orleans in November 2020 and 2021.

Artistic Background: My Developing Interest in People within Cultures 

I began my interest in photographing people within their cultures as a young man traveling throughout Europe and Latin and South America. As an undergraduate photography and journalism student, I organized Forgotten Dignity, an exhibition of the family photographs of African American families in Bonham, Texas, now held in the Institute of Texan Cultures in San Antonio. After earning an MFA in photography from Central Washington University, my museum career took me from the Pacific Northwest to the American Southwest and Deep South, where I found distinctive cultures and photography subjects in each locale. 

Before moving to New Orleans in 2008, I photographed religious processions and practices in Mexico with support from a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation that resulted in an international traveling exhibition, El Favor de los Santos, and a book published by the University of New Mexico Press, Art and Faith in Mexico. Since 1980, my photographs have appeared in more than 27 solo exhibitions and 100 group exhibitions nationally and internationally, and my works are held in numerous public collections in the United States, Italy, and Brazil. The Historic New Orleans Collection recently added over 100 of my second line photographs to its permanent art collection, and it launched a major exhibition and book, Dancing in the Streets, that opened on February 25, 2021, and includes 8 of of my photographs in the exhibiton and 8 differnt ones in the book.

Second Line Parades: An Only-in-New Orleans Tradition

My color photographs document a unique New Orleans Black cultural tradition: second line parades. The parades evolved from the funeral processions sponsored by social aid and pleasure clubs that arose in the 1880s to provide Black Americans insurance and burials at a time when insurance companies did not always offer them coverage. The parades further evolved from West African dance circles and Congo Square dances held on Sundays, during slavery times the afternoons off, with added elements inspired by military brass bands. For a time, the dances were banned, deemed threatening to the city’s white inhabitants. The parades, rich in ceremony and ritual, exuberantly express the right of Black Americans to publicly parade while preserving a vibrant cultural and artistic heritage. 

My passion for documenting and preserving a record of New Orleans’ second line parade culture has resulted in tens of thousands of photographs from having spent over a decade following the weekly parade schedule, which runs most of the year, breaking only for major holidays, Jazz Fest, and the hottest part of summer—and now the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the years, I have formed relationships with several of the social aid and pleasure clubs that sponsor the parades, allowing me behind-the-scenes access and greater ease of navigation, resulting in more personal and distinctive photographs. My photographs vividly capture the paraders’ and brass bands’ elaborate custom-designed, hand-sewn costumes, umbrellas, baskets, and banners, and the hundreds of dancing parade followers, revealing the festive mood of these sacred moments of cultural celebration. Club members recognize my care and sensitivity in portraying these spiritual ceremonial moments positively and respectfully. I regularly donate prints and photographic files to club members, as well as 10 percent of all print sales to the clubs as my contribution to preserving their heritage.

Other photographers have focused on this genre, but with New Orleans’ recent 300th anniversary, the time is right for new exploration and serious study, especially since the number of social aid and pleasure clubs has recently increased to more than 40 after dwindling from 50 to 35 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.  The COVID-19 pandemic has seriously affected this tradition, with New Orleans being hard hit, with some of the highest infection and death rates, preventing all second line parades since mid-March of 2020. No New Orleans second line were held until a year later on June, 20, Fathers Day 2021. This proved a major impediment to second line clubs’ organizational and financial health and sustainability, but they are now rolling once again. 

Oxford American Articles, Charles Lovell The Second Line, January 2017

Charles Lovell The Second Line II, January 2019

Louisiana Endowmwent For The Humanities article  The Art of Procession by Charles Lovell Spring 2020

Historic New Orleans Collection book, Dancing in The Streets, 2021

Charles Lovell The Second Line, exhibiton and feature in All About Photo, January 2022

2 subsequent articles in All About Photo during 2022, Charles Lovell Portfolio, and Charles Lovell Exclusive Interview

Unlikely Stories blog, December 2022

Back When The Good Times Rolled 100-page book, to be published by New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation Spring 2023.

Forthcoming exhibiton and article in scholarly journal Pulsation 3 for Stonybrook University Africana Studies program Spring 2023.


New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation, grant recipient 2021 and 2022

Threadhead Cultural Foundation, grant recipeint 2022

Louisiana Endowment For Humanities, award recipient Michael P. Smith Documetary phoographer of the year 2020

Charles Muir Lovell

816 Pacific Avenue

New Orleans, Louisiana, 

USA 70114

cell 575-770-0095

website link: www.charleslovell.com

@charleslovellart Instagram 

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