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Mobile's Mardi Gras Secrets

Photo by Keyhole Photo

Mardi Gras officially began in Mobile, Alabama, in 1703, a full 15 years before the city of New Orleans was even founded. Mobile’s first masked ball, Masque de la Mobile, was held the following year and the first parade in 1711. Sixteen men pushed a cart carrying a papier mache cow’s head through town. Mobile Mardi Gras has evolved and expanded since its rustic beginnings, but mystery and intrigue still surround the celebration, with secret krewes and masked figures often reveling behind closed doors.

The public side of Mobile Mardi Gras has grown enormously since that first 16-member parade, with 41 parades on the schedule for this year and almost a million people estimated to attend the festivities. After moving back home to Mobile from Ohio, photographer Meggan Haller and her husband, Jeff, a native of Nebraska, decided to start documenting Mardi Gras in Mobile. Owners of Keyhole Photo, the couple has spent several years photographing parades, pageants, balls, bands and a few behind the scenes goings on.

Photo by Keyhole Photo

Photo by Keyhole Photo

“There’s a lot of different ways to celebrate Mardi Gras here,” says Meggan, “and I’m fascinated by all of the different aspects.” “Some are very public, while some are not only private, but secretive, and they are pretty serious about their secrecy.” The Hallers have had some trouble gaining access into secret or “mystic” societies, especially after the 2008 film, “The Order of Myths,” put a bad taste in the mouths of Mobilians. Filmmaker Margaret Brown explored the racially segregated carnivals of the city and garnered critical acclaim from Sundance, SXSW and the Edinburgh Film Festival, but locals weren’t too excited to see their Mardi Gras portrayed as an example of racism.

But Haller says time is on their side for capturing the mysterious aspects and that they haven’t even scratched the surface on logistical details like float building, barricades and law enforcement. And there are plenty of public aspects to the celebration that are worth documenting. From Joe Cain’s masked Merry Widows (Cain is credited with reviving Mardi Gras in the 1860s) to the Order of the Inca’s ham throwing and the Excelsior jazz band’s legacy dating back to 1883, the Hallers have no shortage of subjects.

Photo by Keyhole Photo (Pictured are a grandfather and his grandson, both members of the Excelsior Band.)

“We anticipate working on this project in some way , shape or form for many years and building a body of work,” says Haller. “Mardi Gras never really ends here, it just keeps going year-round.”

Prints from the Hallers’ years of documenting Mobile Mardi Gras are on display in Mobile’s historic district at the new Cortlandt’s restaurant and bar on the corner of George and Savannah streets in Oakleigh. “Bon Temps: The Fancy and Folly of Mobile Mardi Gras” will be on display through February. More information can be found on the Keyhole Photo blog. The Hallers also ask that groups with annual traditions, secrets, after-parties and general Mardi Gras stories to tell contact them through their site.

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