Caught by the River

Acadian Azaleas, 1979

16th August 2014

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We came upon a wonderful site called Bitter Southerner, thanks to our good pal and Faber New Poet Will Burns. Bursting at the seams with stories, photos and other phenomena so vivid you can practically taste them, Rick Oliver kindly let us repost this piece, Acadian Azaleas, 1979, a photographic homage to the The South’s favourite shrub…

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Rick Olivier had spent his entire life in the bayou country of Acadiana on the west bank of the Mississippi. He was 21 years old in 1979, fresh out of college at Nicholls State in Thibodeaux. He was sure about only one thing: that the camera would be his life.

He’d begun shooting pictures for The Greater Plaquemine Post when he was in high school. By the time he finished college, he had already become a de facto photography instructor at Nicholls State — “especially in my kingdom, the darkroom,” he says. He had even won two golds in the Louisiana Press Association’s annual competition for feature photography.

He had a little money and even less of an idea about what to do with himself. He had a red 1967 Volkswagen Beetle, whose engine he had rebuilt himself, all the way down to the main bearings, with help from a hippie’s guide to auto maintenance called “How to Keep Your Volkswagen Alive: A Manual of Step by Step Procedures for the Compleat Idiot,” by John Muir.

“That was the last year it had the handlebar bumpers,” he says. “That was my chariot, man.”

With the rest of the money, he bought “eight or 10 boxes of SX70 film.” The iconic Polaroid SX70 was “just a great thing,” he says. “You could go around and shoot a picture and give it to somebody and then shoot one to keep.”

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He got in the Beetle and drove up and down Bayou Lafourche, taking pictures of people with their azaleas. He’d give each subject a picture and take another for himself.

“In May, the azaleas go nuts around here,” he says. “It’s just that fuchsia against the predominant color of the bayou country. The predominant color of the bayou country would be the color of bayou water, which is a greenish-gray. It’s just in the atmosphere. And the fuchsia against that greenish gray is just an explosion.

“These old Cajun ladies,” he concludes. “They just love their azaleas so much.”

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Spring has come late this year, but we’re starting to see some color. Soon we will take the cocktails to the front porch more often than not.

We suggest you cue up the little number we’ve provided from Louis Amstrong and Duke Ellington. Listen to Pops sing about azaleas in Louisiana, and scroll through Rick Olivier’s images from 35 years ago, when he was only 21 and figured it was OK to put the big choices off for a little while.

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Check out Rick’s day job here