Everybody knows about this city's pioneering role in the history of American music and food, but what about photography? Blank looks are a common response to that question, yet not only was the South's first photo studio located here, it belonged to Jules Lion, who studied under Louis Daguerre before he became America's first black photographer. Likewise, longtime French Quarter fixture Clarence John Laughlin was America's first surrealist photographer, and the New Orleans Museum of Art's (NOMA) extensive photography collection, now numbering 10,000 works, also was ahead of its time. For that we can thank former NOMA Director John Bullard, who made it a personal priority shortly after assuming his post four decades ago, when few museums considered photography an art. This show features 130 significant works by many leading names in the field.
Featured images range from British photographic pioneer William Fox Talbot's evocative 1843 view of a Paris street scene to Robert Mapplethorpe's 1982 French Quarter staircase composition. Minimal to an almost abstract extent, this was a departure from the influence of his New Orleans mentor, George Dureau, whose empathetically edgy oeuvre was a major influence on Mapplethorpe's early work. Photography connoisseurs will find much to like among lesser-known works by big-name photographers inlcuding Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Lee Friedlander, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Hans Bellmer interspersed with iconic images by photo art stars like Lewis Hine, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus and others. There also are outstanding examples of work by underappreciated female photographers such as Ilse Bing and Hannah Hoch. Local classics include the legendary bordello photographer E.J. Bellocq's Storyville Fireplace Mantel (pictured), Arnold Genthe's ultra-impressionist French Quarter scenes and Robert Frank's classic 1955 shot of zombie-like Canal Street pedestrians. But Laughlin's A Mangled Staircase illustrates how old architecture and surrealism blend seamlessly into New Orleans' unique cultural gumbo, while revealing why Laughlin himself was the godfather of the new generation of local surrealist photographers. — D. ERIC BOOKHARDT