I've been fortunate to have many assignments in New Orleans. It's a great town. But nothing I ever experienced could prepare me for the first time.
I was sent to the Cresent City to photograph an oil company CEO for an annual report. I flew in with enough gear to do the job three times over. I had a brand spanking new Hasselblad CM outfit; a Widelux and a Leica rangefinder kit. I planned on shooting mostly medium format. Since this was my first time in New Orleans, I decided to stay an extra day, hire a local guide and photograph the city. I had a must-see list and knew it would be more comfortable with someone who knew the streets.
The CEO shoot went super smooth. He liked the Polaroid, and the client did, too. A few quick rolls and done. That night he treated us to a grand meal at Commander's Palace. A yet to be known chef named Emeril Lagasse was in the kitchen. Still today one of the most exquisite meals I've eaten.
But I digress. The local fixer arrived at my hotel the next day so we could take advantage of the early morning light. We discussed the places I wanted to go and what I wanted to shoot. He was only nervous about one request, a New Orleans Cemetery. It struck me as very odd since they give tours of the unique cemeteries. But he was local, so I guessed there might be some superstition involved.
Away we went, in out and all around the beautiful city. It was marvelous. He knew back streets and alleys I would never have found. It was money well spent. Finally, the end of the day was approaching, and we had yet seen the cemetery. I inquired. He resisted. I insisted. He mumbled something and off we went.
Because New Orleans is below sea level, they bury their dead in tombs above ground. With the later afternoon light, the scene was both beautiful and a little macabre. The cemetery I insisted on visiting was the one where Voodoo queen Marie Leveau was entombed. Soon I would know why my guide was spooked.
We started through the grounds in search of Marie's tomb. I wanted a picture of it because her followers to this day leave items in her honor. We walked and walked and walked. It was confusing because we saw the same tombs, just not hers. Finally, we found it. We also realized we had somehow passed it three times. We just didn't see it. My guide said she didn't want us to see it. <insert eye roll> I wasn't having any of that nonsense and just brushed it off.
Finding her final resting place was an experience. Her followers marked the tomb with black wax, copper pennies, candles and, of course, a Voodoo doll. I had the picture I came for, so I raised my brand new Hasselblad and pushed the shutter. Klomp! Mirror went up; shutter did not fire. Could not recycle the lens. Took it apart, reset the lens manually, tried again. KLOMP! This time the lens could not be reset. My brand new camera was dead. OK, I had others. So I reframed the shot using my Widelux. Push the button and zzzzoooommmmmmmmmmmmmm. I knew that sound wasn't right. Try again. Zzzzoooommmmmmmmmmmmmm! What should have been a smooth, steady movement of the lens was transformed into a staccato sweep across the track. My guide was now getting very upset and visibly frightened.
The last chance for a picture of Miss Marie was with my venerable Leica M3. Let her break this I thought to myself; it's nearly bulletproof. But not to make her angry I fired off just a few quick frames, and we made our exit. At least that was the plan.
We made our way to the front gate only to find we were locked in. The cemetery closed at 4:30. It was 4:45. A ten-foot concrete wall enclosed the graveyard. The gate was iron. We were in trouble. My guide was freaking out. We had to find a way to leave. He explained after dark people entered the grounds to do drugs and pay homage to Miss Marie. We didn't want to be there for either activity. I concurred. The only way we could get out was to climb the tombs, trying not to fall in as most covers were ajar, and lift ourselves up and over the ten-foot wall. Finally, we slid down the outside to safety.
As the old storyteller Paul Harvey said, and now, the rest of the story.
After that ordeal, we needed a drink, a very strong adult beverage. We found a quiet bar and sat down. Angry over my dead Hasselblad, I found a phone to call the shop where I bought it. An old college buddy worked there and answered the phone. After explaining the whole experience, he said, OK, go to the end of Bourbon Street, there's a Voodoo shop. Buy a pair of chicken fee. Place the feet on either side of the camera, and in the morning it will be working fine. You need to remove the hex cast on the camera by Marie Leveau. He was dead serious.
Of course, I didn't buy any chicken feet. I came home with my broken camera so I could send it for repair. I wrote a description of what was wrong, leaving out the part about Voodoo, and sent it off to Hasselblad. Several weeks later I receive a call. A man on the phone who sounded exactly like the Swedish Chef needed to ask me a few questions. He was a repair tech from Hasselblad. He explained my camera wasn't working. Yes, I know, that's why I sent it for repair. He went on, saying the camera didn't work, but they could find nothing broken. It just didn't work, and he didn't know what to do. I asked him to keep working on it and said good-bye.
A few more weeks and the camera arrived home, working. Timing was great because the next day I had an assignment to photograph a large group of Priests and Nuns for a Catholic Week poster. As I'm shooting away, the rolls are piling up. And then that familiar sound comes back, Clomp. Instantly the shoot was done. The camera once again stopped working, this time on the ninth frame of the ninth roll.
Back at my studio I again called my friend at the camera shop. He exclaimed, "You didn't use the chicken feet!" No, I hadn't. He also explained the number 9 was her number. Whatever. Once again I packed the camera, wrote telling what happened and sent it back to Hasselblad.
A few weeks later the same technician called to talk about my not working - not broken camera. Figuring what do I have to lose I told him the whole story about my now favorite Voodoo Queen, the cemetery and the number nine. He listened carefully, occasionally uttering an uh-huh, Voodoo, and hex. I finished, and he took a deep breath, asked if I had everything for the Hasselblad, box, cards, whatever was in the box when I bought it. Yes, of course. "Good, send it all to me, " he said. "Why," I asked. Two weeks later a brand new Hasselblad camera, 80mm f/2.8 lens and A-12 film back arrived replacing my Voodoo'ed Blad. I suspect somewhere at the Hasselblad factory there is a camera buried, probably with chicken feet on each side.