Howard Philips Smith grew up on a small farm in Oloh, Mississippi, where his family moved at an early age. He attended the University of Southern Mississippi, obtaining multiple degrees in history, French, and German. A Fulbright Scholarship in 1977 took him to Bordeaux, France, where he taught English at LycÉe Montesquieu. He attended the UniversitÉ de Bourgogne, Dijon, where he studied late nineteenth-century French literature. Afterward, he settled in New Orleans for almost a decade, recording the unique culture of Carnival, attending many gay balls, and documenting the city with his photography, which was exhibited at the Contemporary Arts Center and various galleries in the city. His work is part of the permanent collection of the New Orleans Museum of Art and was also included in one of the first gay and lesbian photography exhibitions in San Francisco in 1984.
Returning often to New Orleans to conduct research, he began exploring a new work based on the history of Gay Carnival. This lengthy and often daunting work was to take over two decades to complete and produced not only a recreation of the period entitled Cult of the Mask: The Strange and Delectable tale of Life Among the Sybarites (unpublished) but also the first compendium of this history, Unveiling the Muse: The Lost History of Gay Carnival in New Orleans (University of Mississippi Press, 2017) with a foreword by renowned Carnival historian and designer Henri Schindler. Smith’s history of the Southern Decadence festival will be published by Louisiana State University Press in 2018. He has published many articles on the history of Gay Carnival in New Orleans, and his short story “Gilbertine Liveaudais” was included in the anthology My Gay New Orleans (LL Publications, 2016), edited by Frank Perez and Jeffrey Palmquist.
In March 2016, Smith moderated a historic panel discussion at the Louisiana State Museum’s Old U. S. Mint in New Orleans entitled “Pioneers of Gay Carnival: A Conversation with the Legends.” The panel brought together founders and key figures of various early Gay Carnival krewes to discuss this incredible and overlooked history. The well-attended groundbreaking session revealed how important this history was to the city and how the museum itself had become a center for preserving this heritage. The session was videotaped and became part of the museum’s growing Gay Carnival collections.
Smith’s work has appeared in Framework: The Journal of Images and Culture, a publication of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies; Les Beaux-Arts, a publication showcasing the fine arts of New Orleans; Arthur Hardy’s Mardi Gras Guide; and New Orleans Magazine. He is a former instructor in the Department of Art History at the University of Southern California and the former managing editor of the Journal of Architectural Education. He currently is Art Director of the USC Libraries and lives with his husband and three cats near downtown Los Angeles in the former home of 1930s movie star Anna Mae Wong.