One of the most puzzling things about New Orleans that stumps visitors and natives alike is how a city so steeped in history and tradition can occasionally be so pioneering.
The historical part of that equation exists all around us, but the pioneering part isn’t always obvious. Though most everyone knows how jazz transformed America and the world, other, less visible local innovations often get lost in the shuffle.
New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) photography curator Russell Lord’s massive book, Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art, co-published in March by Aperture and NOMA, suggests our most familiar local art institution harbors its share of semi-secret history.
Although NOMA is known in museum circles for being ahead of its time when it first began collecting art photography, when E. John Bullard became its director in 1973, we now know thanks to Lord's erudite overview that its pioneering photography exhibitions began in 1916.
Accompanying 131 pristinely reproduced works from NOMA's collection of more than 12,000 historic photographs, Lord's essay eloquently elaborates on the scope and scale of a collection that reflects almost every aspect of the history of photography from its earliest experiments to the present.
Because the collection features such a strategic mix of works by the world's most iconic photographers, as well as images by lesser-known figures that illuminate overlooked or forgotten aspects of local or global history, it is a collection that amounts to a nuanced visual history of civilization. For instance, Felix Moissenet's mysterious and striking 1852 daguerreotype of a well-dressed black man raises no end of questions. Who was he? Its velvet case provides the photographer's studio address on Camp Street, suggesting the subject likely was part of the city's unusually large, affluent community of free people of color. His commanding persona and the superb quality of the daguerreotype all seem to bear that out, but it is his preternatural presence with the forthright gaze of an emissary from an all-but-forgotten culture greeting us from across time that makes it so extraordinary. It is a picture that, as Lord writes, “might have been possible only in New Orleans.”
Daniel Louis Mundy's 1867 photograph The Extinct Dinornis or Moa Bird takes us to Victorian-era New Zealand where dinosaurlike bird skeletons towering over a bearded scientist telescope us into an age when the sun never set on Britain's empire and Darwin's theory of evolution was almost as influential. Science and technology were celebrated for more pragmatic reasons in America, where Lewis Wickes Hine was known for his heroic views of workers, typified by his circa 1920 Mechanic and Steam Pump. He also was a social critic whose shocking images of children and immigrants suffering in squalid conditions set the stage for controversies that still dominate the headlines.
The 1920s and 1930s were decades when form elegantly articulated function and boldly abstract designs existed side by side with the excesses and hardships of an age when photographs captured every nuance and irony in their seemingly endless profusion. The German Bauhaus design group tried to reconcile the disparities between art and life, but in Lotte Stam-Beese's 1928 Albert Braun with Mirror, a photo of a Bauhaus designer, we see prescient hints of the way images would evolve to become an inescapable hall of mirrors ceaselessly reflecting our hopes, fears and affiliations in a kaleidoscopic cacophony.
But the American photographer and scientist Imogen Cunningham eloquently returned abstraction, quite literally, to its roots in her 1929 photograph Rubber Plant, a lyrically graphic interpretation of a rubber plant that is as scientifically informative as it is aesthetically engaging.
In the Jazz Age, industrial geometry became a design motif unbounded by scale. Maurice Tabard's aptly titled 1929 photogram Jazz transforms simple mechanical forms into a rhythmic art deco design that has much in common with the soaring deco towers of Berenice Abbott's classic 1936 cityscape Park Avenue and 39th St., Manhattan. Both reflect a dynamic modernist verve that became increasingly hard to sustain.
Ilsa Bing's 1934 Salut de Schiaparelli fashion illustration of an ethereal blonde seemingly floating in a baroque sea of lilies epitomizes the Depression-era idea of glamour as a spectacle beyond most people's reach — but Marta Kuhn-Weber and Anton Weber pursued their own unique version of street fashion photography in works like their fantastical, if gritty, 1920 Street Woman view of an eccentric shopkeeper.
Glamour and fantasy were potent palliatives in a decade characterized by widespread deprivation and a backlash against a coldly mechanistic form of capitalism that critics considered dehumanizing — a view graphically articulated in Robert Disraeli's theatrical photo collage of an arm vanishing into a meat grinder that spits out tiny cars. New Orleans surrealist photographer and preservationist Clarence John Laughlin considered the neglect of historic buildings to be a passive form of violence, and his 1949 photograph of architectural wreckage, The Mangled Staircase (No. 2), anticipates the portentous work of later neo-expressionist painters like Anselm Kiefer.
Like the collection on which it is based, Looking Again provides rare visual insights into life as it was lived while uniting local photographic history with its broader global context. This city's long relationship with great photographers is an ongoing story, and perhaps no one embodies that history more fully than Washington native Lee Friedlander, whose hundreds of New Orleans-based images could constitute a museum in their own right.
While much of his early work focused on local jazz culture, it is his Philadelphia, 1961, photo of a woman's ghostly face glowing on a TV screen in an otherwise empty room that anticipated the spectral yet inescapable quality of the photographic image in the world we inhabit today.
That ability to time travel into the past while sometimes anticipating the future is emblematic of a photography collection and its host city, where past, present and future often seem to co-exist in improbably playful, if occasionally portentous, counterpoint.