By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune
At the south end of City Park in New Orleans, lies a photography treasure trove. Back in the early 1970s, The New Orleans Museum of Art got into the photo collecting business. Then director, John Bullard, appreciated that documentary and artistic photos from all eras were an under-appreciated art form.
Photographs were the spark plugs of the engine of modernism. If there weren't photographs to perfectly and easily capture nature, there would have been no Van Gogh, no Picasso, no Pollock, maybe no Banksy. But 40 years ago, the photos that started humanity's rush toward expression and abstraction weren't nearly as revered as the art they provoked.
There was an upside to that. Unlike paintings by Van Gogh, Picasso and Pollock, great photos were inexpensive enough for a smallish museum to eventually amass a first class 10,000-piece collection. Photography at NOMA, the sweeping 132-piece exhibition that opens to the public Sunday (Nov. 10) is a demonstration of the depth of NOMA's photographic holdings. The show is especially au courant because, on one hand, the big review of paper photographs comes during the era when photography is more ubiquitous than ever — I bet you have a digital camera within arm's reach right now. But on the other hand, old-fashioned paper photographs are becoming as scarce as polar bears.
NOMA's curator of photos Russell Lord said that collecting digital photos presents a big question: What, exactly, is a museum supposed to collect? He told me that one strategy is to acquire two samples of the digital photo printed out on paper to the artist's specifications, plus a digital file of some kind that contains the electronic information necessary to reproduce the image. Museums are meant to put one printed photo on display and the other in deep, dark storage. If the first image ever deteriorates, future curators can print out a new copy, using the stored copy as a guide to insure exact reproduction. Presumably, if the electronic media becomes obsolete, the museum still has at least one good copy of the printed photo.
Such is the forbidding future of photo collecting.
But don’t fear. The current show is focused on the reassuring past.
Last week, Lord gave me a preview of the extensive exhibit. As we strolled from one photo to another, he provided insights, proving that Rod Stewart was correct when he sang, "Every picture tells a story, don't it?" Lord said that this show pretty much ends with the black and white era – there are only three color pictures included. He plans a follow-up show to expose the museum's more contemporary color photography collection.
Here are just a few of the photos we hovered over, mostly chosen with a Crescent City slant in mind. Seek and find …
"Freeman," by Felix Moissenet, 1855
In the early days of the camera, there were two competing types of photograph, the Talbotype and the Daguerreotype. They were the Apple and IBM of their time. The amazing thing is how beautifully they both worked from the beginning. NOMA photo curator Russell Lord said that this emotionally intense antebellum portrait of a New Orleans free black man taken at a Camp Street portrait studio is so detailed that with a magnifying glass you can see the reflection of the photographer in the sitter's eyes. Despite the great wave of modern art that washed across the world over the next century, photography was indisputably the dominant medium from 1839, when Monsieur Louis Daguerre debuted his technique, until the advent of YouTube.
Imagine this, there are Daguerreotypes of President Andrew Jackson, who was born before the American Revolution.
Demonstration of the Talbotype by Thomas Augustine Malone, 1848
Lord explained that this simple exposure of a stencil of the word Talbotype – after one of the pioneers of photography, Englishman William Henry Fox Talbot – was produced as a scientific demonstration by Thomas Augustine Malone in 1848. It was a time when any photo process seemed magical. Lord pointed out that the extreme light source necessary for the indoor exposure was produced by burning phosphorus, which creates a blinding white glare. The amazing thing is, Russell said, the 1848 Talbotype demonstration wasn't just one of the first examples of photography, it may have been one of the first instances of what you might call conceptual photography – an attempt to capture an idea not merely an image. So completely cool.
"View of the Paris Boulevards" by William Henry Fox Talbot, 1843
“View of the Paris Boulevards” is an example of Talbot's photographic method put into practice by the inventor himself. Though there is something a bit more magical about tiny, shiny, one-of-a-kind Daguerreotypes, Talbot's use of negatives to create multiple prints would come to rule the photo world for 150 years.
"Charles Hotel," New Orleans by Theodore Lilienthal, 1867
Theodore Lilienthal, a Prussian immigrant, was the biggest name in Civil War-era Crescent City photography. So it was probably no surprise that New Orleans city fathers chose him to produce 150 streetscapes to be shown at the Paris world's fair in 1867, so the French could get a favorable look at their lost colonial outpost. Lord pointed out that the fidelity of Lilienthal's photo of the long lost Charles Hotel is so fine that we can tell by the giant pocket watch outside of the timepiece shop that the photo was taken at a little past 10 a.m. Lilienthal photos are time machines.
Wouldn't you love to have a dozen at Pino's Oyster Saloon?
"A Mangled Staircase" by Clarence John Laughlin, 1949
New Orleans master surrealist Clarence John Laughlin reveled in the ruins of Louisiana's plantation past. Each of his photographs is a southern, gothic ghost story. Each of his photos is an exercise in geometric exactitude. Each of his photos poses a psychological question. In this case: What are the implications (cue Led Zeppelin) of a stairway that no longer climbs to heaven?
"Louisiana" by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1947
Henri Cartier-Bresson is the spiritual godfather of the Instagram. He was an internationally renowned photographic gunslinger known for popping off the perfectly accurate shot in a flash. The oddly angled tree plus the newspaper litter, plus the tropical banana palm, plus the dusty streetscape in the distant background, plus the child dashing through the shadows adds up to a gritty quick-draw masterpiece of the mid-20th Century Dream State.
"Staircase, 1140 Royal" by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1982
New York art star Robert Mapplethorpe became famous for his velvety formal compositions of nude men, celebrity portraits and floral studies. During a visit to New Orleans in 1982, he shot this uncharacteristic architectural interior. What gives the Spartan photo extra punch is that it was taken in the "haunted" LaLaurie mansion on Royal Street, the scene of a 1830s scandal, when outraged citizens discovered that the socialite woman of the house was torturing and murdering her slaves.
Here's an irony. Mapplethorpe polarized the art world with a selection of early photos that were risqué by almost anyone's standards. The fallout from his controversial artwork included a reduction of government funding for the arts, which made it harder for institutions like NOMA to collect works of art, including photographs.
Untitled (Self-Portrait Reflected in Window) by Lee Friedlander, 1965
Lee Friedlander achieved a Magritte-like existential echo of silhouettes in this mid-1960s photo taken on Canal Street. Friedlander is probably best known for his cityscapes, but twice nudes played a major role in his fame. Visiting New Orleans in the 1960s, Friedlander purchased a set of glass plate negatives featuring poetic photographs of early 20th-century prostitutes by a then-largely unknown photographer named E.J. Bellocq. When Friedlander printed and published Bellocq's Storyville photos, they soon became some of the most iconic images of the Crescent City. A decade later, Friedlander shot a series of nudes of the young singer who would become the mega-celebrity Madonna.
Bedroom Mantel, Storyville by E. J. Bellocq, 1911-1913
John Ernest Bellocq is one of the art world's great enigmas. During the early 20th-century era of legal prostitution in New Orleans, he produced nude photographs of the sex workers of Storyville. The thing is, no one is exactly sure why. Were they a commission meant for a brothel catalog, a personal collection of erotica, or were they meant as a documentary essay of some sort? No one knows. The mysterious photo on display at NOMA is presumed to be Bellocq's mantle. Notice that the 27 (!) images of women displayed on his mantle are far more coy and chaste than his Storyville photos. But, if you look very closely in the mirror at the bottom right of the photo, you can see the eerie reflection of a nude. Is this Mr. Bellocq winking at us from beyond the grave?