For more than three decades, Selwhyn Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell (American, born 1964) has been photographing Black New Orleans, creating a unique body of work that blends elements of portraiture, fashion, performance, and street photography. This exhibition explores how Polo Silk successfully blends all of those elements, while illustrating his role as an important part of photographic history.

Polo Silk mobilized the traditional portrait studio, taking it to the streets and clubs of New Orleans and transforming it into an adaptable, on-the-spot method of picture making. In the course of his career, Polo perfected the use of instant-photo technology, making dynamic, one of a kind portraits that capitalized on the vibrant color range and immediacy that is a hallmark of Polaroid and other instant films. Sold on demand to clients who wanted a record of an event like Super Sunday, or to show off their carefully planned outfit on any given Saturday night, Polo’s pictures have become an integral part of how many Black New Orleanians have used photography to represent themselves.

Polo’s pictures are often taken in front of the colorful airbrushed backdrops painted by his cousin Otis Spears (American, born 1969) that feature figures from hip-hop and bounce music, fashion brands, sports logos, and the hot songs of the day. In bringing photography out of the studio and directly to the people, Polo made it a truly accessible phenomenon. While traditional portrait photographs were often designed to appear timeless and placeless, Polo’s pictures are absolutely fixed in time, and rooted in New Orleans. Together, Polo and his subjects have created one of the most important visual archives of this time and place, an important set of pictures that highlight Black expression, individuality, and ultimately, a collective community identity.

Lo Life, Lo Down, Club Detour

1993

Polo Silk

Unique Polacolor print

4 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches

Museum purchase, Tina Freeman Fund, 2021.68

Mardi Gras, Orleans and Claiborne

1999

Polo Silk

Unique Polacolor print

4 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches

Museum purchase, Tina Freeman Fund, 2021.73

Phillip Green, Mr. Big Stuff, Club Detour

1992

Polo Silk

Unique Polacolor print

4 1/4 x 3 1/2 inches

Museum purchase, Tina Freeman Fund, 2021.70