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Memory and Obsession



It has been argued that photographers are collectors who use their cameras to accumulate visual fragments of their experiences. New Orleans Museum of Art (NOMA) photography curator Steve Maklansky says as much in his curatorial statement at the entrance to NOMA's new Collecting the Collected: Five Years of New Photography Acqusitions show, and it's a perspective that resonates neatly with the work on view, an assortment of images culled not only from the experience of those photographers, but also from the holdings of all the collectors and gallery dealers who amassed their work in the first place.

So the underlying question here is fascination: Which visual impressions will fascinate a photographer enough to be recorded on film, and which of the resulting images will fascinate curators and collectors enough to cause them to be preserved for perpetuity? In NOMA's case, there are some 500 new images that were added to the museum's photography holdings over the past five years, and if answers to those questions remain elusive, there is at least no dearth of approaches to be explored. Divided into vintage, 20th century and contemporary segments, Collecting suggests a random stroll through photographic history, yet some unusually focused overviews appear along the way.

The vintage segment is perhaps the most eclectic, a Whitman's sampler of sepia-toned 19th century miscellany, assorted memories preserved as photographs. Amid the randomness is a wall of pathos, a series of Edward Curtis prints of plains Indians that derive their intensity from the contrast of formal poses and dispossessed demeanors. Proud yet defeated, they face the camera as specimens of a culture on the verge of extinction. Each bears a dedication by its donor, photography dealer Joshua Pailet, on behalf of someone of our own time whose life ended in suicide, lending the series an additional layer of psychic intensity. More whimsical, though no less psychological, is Rebecca, A Slave Girl From New Orleans, a carte de visite of a Creole lass so fair that she resembles Alice Liddle, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland.

The next chamber features 20th century photography, much of which suggests what we think of as the "modern age" of skyscrapers and modern art, of totalitarianism, automation and angst. Actually, the groundwork was laid by the great reform photographers, Jacob Riis and Louis Hine. On view are several of Riis' documentary images of the harsh living and working conditions facing poor immigrants in New York. Next to all this is Louis Hine's look at child labor in New Orleans. Titled Holmes Department Store Workers, 1922, it is a posed group portrait of a dozen boys in their early teens. Unlike Riis' immigrants, they are well dressed and hardly look downtrodden except for one detail: most wear the oddly adult expressions of floor managers, or even floor walkers, the snoops hired to blend in with shoppers and intercept shoplifters. (It's chilling to see so many kids with the faces of undercover cops.)

Chilling in other ways are the Big Easy views of John Gutmann, a German artist who emigrated to America in the early decades of the last century. He settled in San Francisco, but made some of the most psychological Mardi Gras photographs ever taken on a visit to this city in 1937. Images such as Crippled Girl Watching the Parade, a view of a pretty Creole on crutches under a Dixie Beer sign, or The Father, a stern-faced man grimly clutching the collar of his masked daughter, read like scenes from a Weimar-era Berlin on the bayou. Here Gutmann expressionistically captures the angst that permeated so much of Depression-era Europe and America.

Other 20th century mini-collections include some fairly classic prints by Berenice Abbott and Lisette Model, images that may be a tad more predictable than the Gutmanns, but which retain a capacity to fascinate, nonetheless. In the contemporary area, the work becomes more miscellaneous again, as we see a lot of the usual suspects that have been covered on these pages already, as well as a few less known practitioners and perhaps emerging masters. In this vein, Tom Baril's Sunflowers, is amazing. A striking specimen seen from the rear (with the petals facing away from us), Sunflowers radiates a multi-layered aura, with overtones of Edward Weston's fleshly peppers and Van Gogh's cosmic gardens. It's a noteworthy addition to NOMA's photography trove, a collection of obsessions, transgressions and fascinations that increasingly reflects all that is memorable about the world around us.

Tom Baril's Sunflowers hints at the work of an emerging master with a multi-layered aura that has hints of Edward Weston or Vincent Van Gogh.
  • Tom Baril's Sunflowers hints at the work of an emerging master with a multi-layered aura that has hints of Edward Weston or Vincent Van Gogh.

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