AMERICAN Louis DeCarlo arrived in Edinburgh with his wife in 1997 on what was supposed to be a six-month sabbatical. Nineteen years on, he’s still photographing the Scottish folk and wider music scene, creating an invaluable visual chronicle. To see Louis’s photography, you need look no further than this website, with the many fine portraits he has taken of Scottish folk musicians and activists as they are inducted into the Scots Trad Music Hall of Fame; similarly, each January during Celtic Connections sees the walls of the Glasgow Royal Concert hall hung with his work. While many will know him best for his music work, he is also active extensively in social documentary, travel and events photography (see his website on www.louisdecarlophotography.com).
Raised in Buffalo, New York State, Louis first started taking pictures while studying at the University of New York at Buffalo during the early Seventies, photographing anti-Vietnam war protests and other demonstrations for the university newspaper. He went on to study photography, as well as music, film and communication theory, gaining a Master of Fine Arts degree at the California Institute of the Arts. Returning to Buffalo to work as a photographer as well as in the family wholesale produce business (to help support a growing family), he played keyboards and synthesisers in a new music ensemble, performing works by the likes of John Cage, John Zorn and Don Metz, as well as with jazz ensembles. He also consulted with Robert Moog in the development of the mini- Moog synthesiser.
While he and his wife Agnes had visited Scotland during their honeymoon in 1973, they had no thought of returning until a chance encounter while he was documenting a medical team trekking into India’s remote Ladakh-Kashmir region. During one of several visits there during the Nineties, he took his daughter Céline and they met a medical team including students from Scotland which led to his daughter studying in Edinburgh on a student exchange scheme. Louis was then invited to have an exhibition of his Himalayan landscapes and portraits in an Edinburgh gallery.
In 1997 he and Agnes, a professor of French literature, decided to take a six-month sabbatical in Edinburgh, to be nearer their daughter and also to give him space to edit the countless photographs he’d accumulated for the Edinburgh show as well as for another in New York.
“We eventually rented a flat in Edinburgh over the Tass bar, where there were singing and music sessions, as well as up the road at the Tron,” he recalls. “Suddenly a routine of Tron-Sandy Bells-Tass etc every night brought me into contact with young musicians from around Scotland and Ireland, some of whom visited my exhibition and consequently asked me if I would photograph them for their albums and promotional material.
“What started as a six-month hiatus has continued for almost 19 years”
Initially having little acquaintance with or enthusiasm for traditional music, Louis’s immersion in the Edinburgh and wider folk scene soon had him hooked. “The energy and vitality of these musicians was addictive, and their resolve to continue these traditions inspired me to document a movement which seemed to be gaining momentum. I was meeting players and singers such as Simon Thoumire, Aidan O’Rourke, Nuala Kennedy, Karine Polwart and Kris Drever, and I started doing photography for them, then covering gigs and festivals. I was largely motivated by my fascination for how this music seemed so much a part of the rugged countryside, the history and the language of Scotland – the dark side of the culture as well as the light. It was more like making a documentary than a commercial body of work.”
Eventually, he found himself engaged to cover events such as the Shetland and Orkney folk festivals, Celtic Connections and Cape Breton Island’s Celtic Colours, as well as many smaller local events. He relishes what he describes as “the rapport with the musicians, the lifestyle, the humour, the craziness, the dedication and mostly the quality of musicianship that is prevalent.”
Today, he continues to flit between Scotland and the US, where he has grandchildren, but his enthusiasm for the Scottish folk scene remains undimmed. “It’s a scene, a renaissance, a movement, existing at a time when ‘popular’ music has become so much song and dance, and hyper-commercial.”
He regards his most satisfying achievement as helping to change the graphic presentation of folk music – “from highland and heather backdrops to urban and individualistic settings which look closer to the personalities of the performers. It’s been great to be able to document events and encourage musical artists, young and old, to experiment with their graphic image.”
He also appreciates the chance he’s had over the past 11 years to take portraits of the Scots Trad Music Hall of Fame inductees. “That has been incredibly satisfying and interesting. To spend time with these people who have great backgrounds and stories and are excited to share them, has been and continues to be an enlightening and inspiring experience.”