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Seeing the Light


Here's a story about art, photography to be exact, that shows how collecting can not only be habit forming, but can also take on a life of its own. Collecting, it seems, is a mystery. Nobody truly understands why collectors collect; sometimes it just happens. It first started happening to Jim and Cherye Pierce when they were newlyweds in New Orleans in 1977, and bought an Ansel Adams photograph. It was the first acquisition in what was to become one of America's more extensive family-held photography collections, though at the time such notions never entered their minds.

He was from Pensacola, Fla., and a doctor at a New Orleans hospital; she was from Gentilly and active in business. In 1976, they moved to Honolulu but routinely returned to New Orleans and other mainland cities, buying more photographs whenever the occasion arose. It was an occasion that must have arisen often. Today their collection is a vast sampler of notable images from photo art history; the labels on the walls read like a who's who of the medium. Classic, iconic, unforgettable images, etched in collective memory, are everywhere, so much so that the less familiar ones seem all the more intriguing partly because they're good, but partly because it's nice to see something new in such a stellar context. For most folks, however, Light will simply be a feast of visual delectables.

First exhibited at the Honolulu Academy of the Arts, which also published the big, coffee-table edition catalogue, Light comprises classic black-and-whites with no evidence of the super-sized color prints that have recently become so trendy. The Robert Mapplethorpe photo on the catalog jacket is of Lucy Ferry, 1986, whose long, bracelet-laden arms support her aristocratic, porcelain-white head. Dark shadows fill the spaces beneath her chin, so her haute-serene visage appears disembodied, as if held up only by her hands, a conceit typical of the tricky Mapplethorpe. And therein hangs a tale, for it seems that he, too, has a local connection in the person of George Dureau, his mentor when he lived here in the 1970s. For his part, Dureau sometimes sounds as if he never got over his former protege's sudden rise to fame when he went back home to New York City and soon became the Robert Mapplethorpe, while Dureau simply remained Dureau, a unique artist whose flair for photographing nude black dudes and outsiders Mapplethorpe had initially emulated. But the latter used such works as counterpoint to more fashionable images such as Lucy Ferry, yielding a glossy mix that in many ways epitomized the New York of the 1980s, whereas Dureau simply epitomized himself and the more or less timeless decadence of the French Quarter.

The exhibition itself is divided into five parts: The Iconic Image, The Natural Environment, The Urban Environment, The Human Condition and Nudes, but in fact they are all iconic images. On entering, we are confronted with Phillipe Halsman's Marilyn Monroe, 1954, in which she looks bubbly in a silky white evening dress, a study in lighter-shade-of-pale sensuality. Turn around and there's one of Berenice Abbot's dazzling after-dark views of New York skyscrapers in the 1930s, gothic capitalist cathedral spires all aglow in incandescence. Then there's Alfred Stieglitz's starkly evanescent Flatiron Building, 1903, and Imogene Cunningham's precisely sensual Magnolia Blossom, 1925, both heraldic images from the high cannon of art photography. But what initially suggests a classically murky Alvin Coburn landscape turns out to be Dresden, 1996, by Š Rocky Schenck. Ohh-kay -- nice to see something new. Other switcheroos are more subtle; for instance, Danny Lyon, famous for his photos of bikers, is here represented by Cotton Pickers, Texas, 1968, a classic field workers scene more typical of vintage WPA-era greats such as Walker Evans (represented here by Lunch Room Buddies, New York, 1931). And so it goes, as one famous image leads to another in what amounts to a walk through 20th century photo history contained in the galleries of a New Orleans museum. Light reminds us that no other medium is so closely linked to perception and our experience of time -- or as Berenice Abbot once put it: "The photographer is the contemporary being par excellence; through his eyes the now becomes past."

Robert Mapplethorpe's Lucy Ferry, 1986, shows a glossier, more fashionable side of the sometimes controversial photographer -- on display with other iconic photographers at NOMA's In Celebration of Light exhibit.
  • Robert Mapplethorpe's Lucy Ferry, 1986, shows a glossier, more fashionable side of the sometimes controversial photographer -- on display with other iconic photographers at NOMA's In Celebration of Light exhibit.

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