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Postcards From a Dream State

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With all the hubbub surrounding the New Orleans Museum of Art's big Jefferson's America and Napoleon's France show, which takes up most of the main floor, it's easy to forget that there is anything else going on in other parts of the building. But indeed there is, and if Louisiana Purchases: Photographs From the New Orleans Museum of Art, sounds like a self-deprecating title for a photo exhibit, the show itself reminds us of how many unusually gifted photographers have worked in this state.

Unlike the big deal downstairs, which sometimes seems almost burdened by the weight of all that history, this more compact show reflects much smaller, more incidental moments that, if not always fraught with portent, at least convey something of the elusive poetry of Louisiana life. Which is something of a switch. NOMA has a big and impressive collection of photographs that are typically deployed on behalf of a particular theme or concept, and it's unusual for Louisiana itself to end up as the flavor of the day. Here's hoping we won't have to wait another 200 years for it to happen again.

Of course, the very idea of a photo show about a state sounds dreadful, conjuring visions of musty cliches. But Louisiana, by contrast, is "A Dream State," to quote a promotional bumper sticker of the 1980s that seemed (in a kind of mass-produced Freudian slip) to tout somnambulism as a local virtue. Still, many of these photos really are pretty dreamy, so there must be something to it.

Photos, memories and dreams are not so very far apart in the overall scheme of things, and even ordinary scenes, in a not-so-ordinary place, can attain a patina of wonder over time. In the first gallery, I was struck by an informal group shot of Mama Brocato and Boys by Abbye Gorin, circa 1960, a view of an elderly, old-countryish woman and her two middle-age "boys" surrounded by the white tiles and wooden display cases of Brocato's ice cream parlor in its old Ursuline Street location. Here the photograph's salient, if Felliniesque, lucidity amounts to a window into that place and time, which could almost have been Sicily in the 1930s from the look of it. Some photos are like that -- like memories preserved in amber. Nearby, Angelique Tassistro's After Dinner Smoke, 2000, brings us up to date with a long exposure of a contemporary babe having an after-dinner cigarette. Seen through the soft light, stemware and dinner remains, this too epitomizes a certain time and place, a pause for reflection at the millennium.

Very different is John Gutmann's Crippled Girl Watching Parade, 1937, a candid shot of a Chinese girl on crutches leaning against a wall. Behind her head a painted sign reads "Drink Dixie Beer," and it's obviously New Orleans, probably Mardi Gras, yet Gutmann has captured something of the unsettled tone of the times in even his most parochial local images. You see it in Jitterbug, New Orleans, 1937, a shot of a young black girl and a tall, gangly black man dancing in an otherwise desolate street. The girl is masked and the man's body language is oddly skeletal, like a scene from the old Brazilian movie Black Orpheus. Another 1937 opus, The Game, features white maskers on a downtown street, but the high boots and refuse somehow remind us that this is the 1930s of Nazis and fascist upheaval. Gutmann is a master of undercurrents.

In such a show it is no surprise to see works by local masters such as Clarence John Laughlin, E.J. Bellocq, "Pops" Whitesell, Eugene Delacroix and George Dureau, among others, yet here the images are not only representative but are arranged in a mutually complementary way that enhances their overall eloquence. There are also some surprises; Michael P. Smith's photo of a spiritualist church ritual, Baptism, 1974, is neatly complemented by Robert Frank's Mississippi River, Baton Rouge, 1956, an eerie view of a cross-wielding spiritualist preacher on the batture. Photos by other international masters such as Walker Evans, Edward Weston, Arnold Genthe and Henri Cartier-Bresson reveal not only their own unique talents, but how Louisiana influenced them to produce work that was often atypical: more surreal, romantic, or -- in a word -- more "dreamy" than what was ordinarily expected of those artists.

John Guttman's remarkable 1937 black-and-white - photograph, The Game, walks a fine line - between dream state and fascist state.
  • John Guttman's remarkable 1937 black-and-white photograph, The Game, walks a fine line between dream state and fascist state.

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