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Art photography has developed dual if not multiple personalities of late. Like an amoeba grown too big to contain itself, it has split into two personas: the older, pictorial approach found in traditional photo galleries, and the newer postmodern or conceptual work more commonly found in contemporary art galleries where video, sculpture, painting or mixed-media pieces are par for the course. While there is some overlap, adherents of each school tend to be somewhat baffled, or perplexed, by the other. The New Orleans Museum of Art includes both, but traditional work dominates because so much of its collection is vintage, or historic. Now, thanks to a gift from NOMA's new photography curator, Diego Cortez, its holdings of international and postmodern photography have grown by some 250 prints including works by such well-known artists as Cindy Sherman, Nan Goldin and John Waters. Sharing space with those stalwarts are edgy masters of the recent past like Danny Lyons and Larry Clark, along with big names from other disciplines such as poet Allen Ginsberg and painter Jean-Michel Basquiat, and even local artists such as Dawn Dedeaux and Elizabeth Shannon. A trove of works by lesser known photographers from Africa and Asia is full of surprises. Like most personal collections, this one is, well, personal, reflecting the curator's exotic and occasionally challenging sensibilities, and not just a grab bag of big names from the history books.

Works in the classic documentary manner include Larry Clark's Tulsa series capturing the daily lives of twisted young speed freaks and junkies. These work well with Katsumi Watanabe's Gangs of Kabukicho, shots of Japanese gangsters and their molls in the 1960s, a kind of East Asian Mean Streets with lots of tattoos and Elvis and beehive hairdos. Dutch photographer Rineke Dijkstra's straight-up portraits of Portuguese bullfighters are almost meditative in their repose, at least until you notice the telltale blood splatters on their clothes.

In a postmodern vein, Cindy Sherman's clever self-portraits appropriating the look of various movie starlets are well known, but her Japanese alter ego, Yasumasa Morimura, is no less dramatic — imagine an Asian drag queen impersonating Marilyn Monroe or Frida Kahlo. His Daughter of Art History probably says more than we'd care to contemplate, but it really is unusual. John Waters' stuff is fairly typical, sort of a Pink Flamingos take on Richard Prince. (It's fun to compare them to an actual Richard Prince piece on display in an adjacent gallery.)

Another photo pioneer of postmodern artificiality is Bernard Faucon, famous for images that mix people and manikins so you have to look twice to see which is which. This substitution tactic, along with "appropriation," became postmodernism's own equivalent to stupid pet tricks, but this collection also includes a still-life photo by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, the sage who influenced postmodern media-based art more than just about anyone. Next to his traditional photo of a handwritten journal and an ashtray on a desk is a printed wall text of Baudrillard quotes that reveal why he's one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century, as well as why it's so hard for artists to live up to the depth of insight contained in his words. Overall, it's a weirdly grand collection, a wonderful gift from Diego Cortez.

He also curated the nearby Architectures show of photos by Dutch-born, Greek-American photographer Ari Marcopoulos, whose large, gritty laser prints of down-and-out, anonymous urban areas littered with graffiti, guns and kids on skateboards can be off-putting at first. But look again, and the smudgy style reminiscent of Xeroxed police reports melds with the anonymous urban architecture into an almost filmic sensibility evocative of both Michelangelo Antonioni and Spike Lee, a vision of a globalized ghetto surrounding the planet like the rings of Saturn — with skateboards.

Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura apes Cindy Sherman in his series of self-portraits mimicking famous paintings from art history.
  • Japanese photographer Yasumasa Morimura apes Cindy Sherman in his series of self-portraits mimicking famous paintings from art history.

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