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Polo Silk, the Picture Man

Sthaddeus "Polo Silk" Terrell, known fondly as "Polo" by his peers and friends, photographs a second line in New Orleans in February 2019. (Photo: Justen Williams)

It’s a picture-perfect day in New Orleans’ 7th Ward – clear blue skies, 65 degrees with a nice breeze – and the Tremé Sidewalk Steppers, one of this city’s most beloved Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, are making the turn from St. Bernard Avenue onto North Broad Street when I spot him – his tall lean frame silhouetted against the Walgreen’s on the corner. He’s decked out in a Ralph Lauren Polo winter hat and stars and stripes scarf, a bright red long sleeve t-shirt underneath a black t-shirt with a silhouetted figure kneeling in front of a red and black American flag. His dark blue jeans (with one pant leg rolled up), offer contrast to some of the coolest sneakers I’ve ever seen.

Photo: Justen Williams

Even though he’s from Uptown New Orleans, photographer Sthaddeus “Polo Silk” Terrell, is in familiar territory over here across town.

“Polo” as he’s fondly known, has been a fan of Ralph Lauren since he was a kid. “It was the hottest thing out and that’s what all the ‘It’ dudes in the neighborhood were wearing.

Photo: Justen Williams

His go-to outfit in the late 80s? A powder-blue, short-sleeve, button-down collar Polo with khakis.

He and I quickly fall in behind the brass band into a massive second line that seems to stretch for miles, and the music takes over. Polo starts moving with the rhythm of the beat and we’re off. I can’t blame him. Everyone is dancing. The entire scene is one of unbridled celebration, which wouldn’t be that unusual, except today is no ordinary Sunday. It’s Super Bowl Sunday, and by any measure of reason or justice, this crowd should be gathering to watch the Saints take on the Patriots in Atlanta.

But a blown call in the NFC Championship game sent the Rams to Atlanta instead of the Saints. Fans in any other city this closely connected with their football team would likely be bitter, angry, miserable. Perhaps even riotous. But not here. New Orleanians celebrate in the face of adversity because it’s in our DNA. We are are genuinely happy people, through and through.

And Polo is capturing it all with his camera. “I came out here to shoot the second line, but my focus has shifted to capturing Saints fans,” he says. “They’re everywhere.” He’s right. We are drowning in a sea of smiling faces wearing black and gold. And it seems like almost everyone knows him.

Photo: Justen Williams

I hear friendly shouts of “Polo!” and “Mr. Silk!” roughly every 10-15 steps we take. People from the crowd along the neutral ground and sidewalk recognize and reach out for him. He turns, smiles, hugs them, and asks if he can take their picture. They pose, he snaps it, and we’re off again, down North Broad parading with the second line. This scene seems to go on for miles.

Photo: Justen Williams

Every once in a while, he’ll shout, “Who Dat!” at a group of parade watchers bedecked in Saints gear and gather them for a group shot, and folks will even pull him in to take a picture with him. Getting caught up in this Saints-mania is no small feat for a born and raised New Orleanian who is quietly a Dallas Cowboys fan. “This is kind of hard for me,” he confides. “But I love my city more than anything.”

Photo: Justen Williams

I later learn that Polo dancing with the second line is something some people thought he might never do again. A horrific car accident in October 2015 landed him in the hospital for several weeks. He had six surgeries on his foot and ankle, and the doctors told him he might never walk again. His faith and his mom, helped carry him through that difficult time.

“My mom said, ‘He didn’t walk in here. He may not walk out of here. But he will walk again because he’s covered in the blood of Jesus.’ You gotta claim your victory.” My blessing may not be your blessing, but it could be your lesson. I always tell people that. Maybe something happened to me or for me, but something else positive could open for you.”

Countless friends and family also came to visit him in the hospital and help him recover.

“All these people came to see me. One day Mia X (the female rap pioneer) was live on Facebook, cooking white beans at Second and D (The Sportsman’s Corner) for the party that evening. I was bummed out, missing it. Steve, the owner, brought me some of those beans later that night in the hospital at 2:30 in the morning, after the party had ended at the bar. I said, “What you doin’ here so late? What time is it?” Steve said, “I don’t care what time it is. It’s dinner time now.”

All the nurses and hospital staff were confused by the non-stop barrage of guests coming to wish Polo a speedy recovery. They asked him if he was famous, and how everyone knew him.

Polo laughs, recounting the story, “I told them, ‘I cut grass. And I do it well!’ Then I told them who I really was and they understood.”

Who he really was, and still is for that matter, is Polo Silk, aka the Picture Man, aka the self-dubbed “Ghetto Olan Mills.” A bonafide celebrity. By many accounts, a legend. Descriptors he tends to dismiss, but there’s no question he earned them. For roughly two decades, Polo was the picture man at the most popular neighborhood clubs in New Orleans.

Photo: Polo Silk Terrell

Beginning in the mid-1980s, he knew all the DJs, all the club owners, and the artists, and knew where all the cool people would be on any given night. He’d stake out a corner with his camera and custom backdrops across the street from different clubs – wherever all the people were – and take their pictures for them, with his Polaroid, “Chelsey” or his 35mm, and later a digital camera and photo printer.

It was a lucrative business, and he hustled hard, often hitting four or five different clubs in one night, sometimes every night of the week. He’d frequently work from 9 p.m. to 3 a.m. – wherever the party was, and for however long it went on – and then make it to his day job at a uniform company for 5 a.m. From the WestBank to New Orleans East and Gentilly to Uptown, you name it – if the club was poppin’, he was there.

Taking pictures. Making memories. Making people smile. Documenting a seminal moment in time in New Orleans hip hop and bounce.

Magnolia Shorty and Li'l Wayne photographed by Polo Silk
Magnolia Shorty and Lil Wayne, photo by Polo Silk Terrell

Polo saw artists like Lil Wayne, Juvenile, DJ Jubilee, and Big Freedia start their careers. He often helped the Cash Money founders, Baby and Slim, get their new acts on the stage at the right clubs at the right time. He knew a lot of these neighborhood superstars before they became household names. And he likens Uptown New Orleans to Motown in that, by his account, much of this entire genre of music – Bounce, with call and response DJs live on the mic – originated at two clubs Uptown: Big Man’s Lounge on Louisiana Ave and Ghost Town in the Hollygrove neighborhood.

Juvenile
Rapper Juvenile, photo by Polo Silk Terrell

[A lot of Polo’s work from this era is documented in his critically acclaimed photo book, Pop That Thang, a reference to the style of dance associated with bounce, p-poppin’, or as the rest of the world knows it, twerking. Yes, that originated in New Orleans too.]

Polo held down the top spot as the picture man at neighborhood clubs in New Orleans until about 2012, when widespread adoption of Facebook and Instagram, the iPhone and the selfie started to put a real dent in his business.

“My main customers – ladies – started taking pictures of themselves at home before they left for the club. They were all dressed up and ready to go. They’d take a selfie or a picture of themselves in the mirror, and then share it on social media. By the time they got to me, they were already set with their picture.”

With business slowing down, Polo changed his approach as well. He began to actually enjoy the clubs he’d worked at for years, visiting with friends and family, playing cards, having a drink, slowing down a bit, just photographing at one or two places instead of five or six in one night. And these clubs are special – they feel almost like home to him.

“It’s nice to be able to go spend time and enjoy myself, and hang out where everybody knows my name, like Cheers,” he told me, referring to the hit tv show from the 1980s.

Back at the Second Line, the story about his hospital stay makes perfect sense. The number of people who recognize him is staggering. This isn’t even his neighborhood, but his 20+ years of work all over town have obviously left an indelible mark on the community and its culture. A nice twist? People out here (and he tells me later, at many of the same clubs he used to work), want to take his picture now, which kind of blows his mind, but also makes him smile.

“The crazy part about this – I take a quote from Jay-Z: ‘This is not the life I chose; it’s the life that chose me.’ Having family and friends that rap, second line, and mask Indian (i.e., are part of a Mardi Gras Indian tribe) has made me, I think, one of the few people who can say they know the history of all three [of these unique cultural treasures of New Orleans] and I’ve enjoyed the front row ride,” Polo says.

One thing that hasn’t changed for Polo is what motivates him most: making someone’s day with a great picture. That’s why, just like in the old days, he always has a camera with him. Even when he’s not working.

“When you give a person a picture and you see that picture puts a smile on their face and makes their day – that’s better than a shoe deal. It don’t get no better than that.” For reference, Polo, in collaboration with producer and performer Chase N. Cashe, released a line of custom Reeboks last year.

Photo: Justen Williams

As we wind our way down Orleans Avenue toward Claiborne, the second line swells with more people who join in on the final stretch of the route. The brass band kicks things up to another level and Polo is dancing, even buckjumping along with everyone else and radiating pure joy.

This is the essence of what makes New Orleans so special for so many people. A celebration of culture, of community, of life itself, where everyone is welcome, and everyone is having a good time. The front page of tomorrow’s newspaper will read, in large headline print: “Super Bowl? What Super Bowl?” It’s easy to see why.

The follow-up:

Polo keeps his encyclopedic knowledge of the neighborhood club scene in New Orleans sharp, by still making the rounds on a regular basis, even if he’s not taking pictures at each venue every night. Here, he shares a handful of his favorite neighborhood clubs and the best days to visit for anyone who’s the least bit adventurous:

Please note these are subject to change without notice:

Wednesday nights – Celebration Hall with TBC Brass Band – $5 cover. Drinks are $3 and $5 and the music is something you won’t forget.

Thursday nights – Tapp’s Place (aka Tapps II) features what Polo calls “Ghetto Karaoke” where you have the “Grown and Sexy” crowd singing songs they sometimes forget the words to, but “It’s a lot of fun”.

Friday nights – Jay’s Place in Gretna (on the Westbank) – oldies but goodies, old R&B for a little while, and then the music shifts to bounce. “They open at 5 and get a good after-work crowd. And you get free fish when you buy two drinks.”

Sundays – ‘Sunday Funday’ – Second line followed by the after-party at Kermit’s Mother-in-Law Lounge, then to On the Bac Uptown, followed by a stop at Second and D, aka Sportsman’s Corner, where the regulars are like family and you can find $10 cups (big drinks), then the Treme Hideaway, and finally the World Famous Sandpiper Lounge.

Thursdays – Big Man’s Lounge serves oysters and steaks on Thursdays (and seafood on Sundays), and it’s another place that’s like family to Polo. “You can catch me here playing cards, kickin’ it. It’s a great spot.”

Polo has recently diversified his business from picture-taking to merchandise, printing his one-of-a-kind photos on shirts, notebooks, keychains, pocket calendars, and more and selling them at pop-ups around town and at special events. He plans to showcase some of these at Super Sunday this year. You can see some of the designs on a dedicated Instagram account.

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