Monday, December 29, 2008

Can Art Save a City?

Black Fireworks by Cai Guo-Qiang, the Prospect.1 artist responsible for the fireworks at the Beijing Olympics, illuminates the auditorium at the Colton School on St. Claude Avenue.

Black Fireworks by Cai Guo-Qiang, the Prospect.1 artist responsible for the fireworks at the Beijing Olympics, illuminates the auditorium at the Colton School on St. Claude Avenue.

Can art save a city?" So began a glowing article on the Prospect.1 biennial in the National Trust for Historic Preservation's magazine, Preservation. Even if it sounds far-fetched, it may not really be much of a stretch. Prospect.1 is the most obvious example, but it's not the only ambitious art effort designed to reclaim New Orleans' greatness. Although our art scene has long been bigger and more vibrant than those of many other cities, we were often insulated from both the global cultural elite and the backstreet communities of the inner city. That began to change in 2008, as the art world's leaders visited en masse and artists increasingly focused attention on our most neglected neighborhoods.

"It's almost like being in some other city," says gallery owner Arthur Roger. "There's a fresh, new energy here now." Jonathan Ferrara, of the gallery that bears his name, agrees. "I was at Prospect.1's booth at the Art Basel art fair, and the people who were coming up and discussing their experiences here were some of the top names in the international art world. It was amazing." Of course, the Wall Street crash that preceded Prospect.1's opening undoubtedly hampered attendance and cash flow, yet it and other projects designed with socio-economic benefits in mind, have still been game changers as reflected in glowing stories in The New York Times, The New Yorker, London's The Guardian, Art Daily, Artforum and on NPR's All Things Considered, among others. Prospect.1 is the most visible part of a movement of America's brightest and most creative citizens to come to the city to help "make it right," as Brad Pitt so aptly put it.

Consequently, New Orleans is now the leading American city for "relational" or "community-based art," with many new projects building on old stalwarts such as the KID smART program for inner-city youth and the Arts Council's varied initiatives. One of the most ambitious is acclaimed conceptual artist Mel Chin's Fundred project for removing the lead from soil estimated to have poisoned 30 percent of New Orleans' at-risk youth, contributing to learning disabilities, crime and violence. Tulane/Xavier Center for Bioenvironmental Research scientist Howard Mielke estimates the cleanup cost at $300 million, and Chin has already given countless hours and many thousands of dollars to the task. (Visit for more information.)

Inspired community art efforts include the St. Claude Collective's art and healing center at 2372 St. Claude Ave., the Creative Alliance of New Orleans' Colton School project at 2300 St. Claude Ave., a Prospect.1 site that also provides free studio and exhibition space to more than 100 artists who agreed to create collaborative works with New Orleans high school students. The project Sculpture for New Orleans treats the city as one big exhibition space and has so far installed 21 major world-class sculptures to enhance its position as a global art capital. AORTA Projects uses grassroots art installations to enliven the post-disaster landscape so "crisis becomes an opportunity for positive growth" — a goal shared by Transforma Projects, which has the motto: "Every community needs the creative power of its people." What these and related groups share is a sense of New Orleans as an artwork unto itself, where the creative community is actively engaged in what Seventh Ward art activist Willie Birch calls "the practice of being here."

Prospect.1 in the Lower Ninth Ward

Adam Cvijanovic's swamp murals at the Tekrema Center share space with the assorted relics of the antique structure's former inhabitants.

Not long after Prospect.1 opened, the Houston Chronicle's art writer, Douglas Britt, ran some photos in his "Arts in Houston" blog with the comment: "There was some terrific art at the conventional sites, but what really made this biennial special was the site-specific installations in the Lower 9th Ward." Others have said as much for the city overall, but the Lower Ninth really is special — not because of the destruction, but for the sense you get on a quiet, sunny day in Holy Cross that this may be the most soulful neighborhood in America. Traces of things hauntingly poetic coexist with the damage and decay, but the biennial is the main attraction, and trying to find all the sites by car can pose some navigational challenges. What follows are a few tips for finding your way around, as well as some commentary on the installations themselves.

The first step is to get to the L9 Center for the Arts (539 Caffin Ave.). On one side is Anne Deleporte's ethereal Editorial Blue collage mural, and the other side features Keith Calhoun and Chandra McCormick's eloquent photographs of local street life culled from what they could salvage of their three decades worth of work after the storm.

On a nearby table are Prospect.1's free and very helpful maps of its site-specific installations in the area, and this map is really the only way to find them by car because the larger official map lacks the necessary street information.

Catercorner from the L9 Center is Wangechi Mutu's Miss Sarah's House, a skeletal frame where Sarah Lastie's house once stood. Luminous at twilight, it's essentially a visualization that will hopefully lead to its restoration.

The next stop is the nearby Tekrema Center (5640 Burgundy St.), a one-time hardware store that now houses a mysterious installation by Chilean artist Sebastián Preece. Like an odd archeological dig, it features concrete slabs turned upside down, or replaced with other concrete slabs to reveal secret topologies or obscure geopsychic excavations.

Upstairs, the walls are covered in Louisiana swamp murals by New York painter Adam Cvijanovic, which are upstaged by the house itself, a time warp filled with the spirits of its former inhabitants and their assorted relics, some of which remain on a mantle in the form of old turpentine and mouthwash bottles, a battered crucifix and a calendar from February 1924.

More problematic is a house (5418 Dauphine St.) transformed by the talented German artist Katharina Grosse into a fiery expressionist painting. Such tactics work well in soulless urban environments but can seem tone deaf in this most soulful of neighborhoods.

While Mark Bradford's house-size ark (2201 Caffin Ave.) is well known, Miguel Palma's Rescue Games piece at the Lower Ninth Ward Village (1001 Charbonnet St.) is no less monumental. A life-size recreation of a World War II Higgins landing craft, it holds a shallow sea of water that becomes a tidal surge when the craft lurches to and fro on hydraulic pistons as the eerie soundtrack from Janine Antoni's video of horrified eyes and wrecking balls emanates from the next room.

The flood ravaged Battleground Baptist Church (2200 Flood St.) holds Nari Ward's Diamond Gym sculpture. A skeletal diamond-shaped steel cage filled with gym equipment surrounded by mirrors, it makes an inexplicably powerful statement to the accompaniment of famous Civil Rights-era sermons. Robin Rhode's simple fountain in the shell of a former playground structure (2500 Caffin Ave.) is meditative when the water's turned on, but almost disappears when it's not.

Finally, Argentine artist Leandro Ehrlich's great Window and Ladder sculpture (1800 Deslonde St.) serendipitously takes us to the new Brad Pitt houses and the old Common Ground compound, where Egyptian artist Ghada Amer's spindly Happily Ever After metal sculpture suggests the fragility of such glad tidings. With regard to the Lower Ninth Ward, we can only hope it's a prophecy.

Through Jan. 18

Various Sites, 715-3968;

Monday, December 15, 2008



Through December

Various Venues, 610-4899; or

In Kyle Cassidy's ironic Chris and Cecelia, handguns appear as tattoos and a small pistol almost blends in amid the clutter of the kitchen.

In Kyle Cassidy's ironic Chris and Cecelia, handguns appear as tattoos and a small pistol almost blends in amid the clutter of the kitchen.

We find ourselves in momentous times. Big things are happening not only globally, but in New Orleans' art community. Fortunately, most of our momentous local art events are of the positive sort, with the successful inaugural Fringe Festival last month, the very large Prospect.1 international biennial continuing through mid-January, and now the New Orleans Photo Alliance's third annual PhotoNOLA expo through December. With work at more than eight museums and three dozen galleries and alternative spaces, it is clearly too big for a single review, so I'll indulge in a bit of trend spotting amid the sheer mass of offerings.

One genre that really stands out this year is street photography, not so much in the traditional sense of 20th century street photographers like Robert Frank or Lee Friedlander, but as a rebirth of the practice of documenting communities and subcultures. What had been a primary focus of WPA-era photographers such as Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee is back on the front burner again, as we see in several new expos and especially two different yet topically related shows at the McKenna Museum of African-American Art and the Photo Alliance Gallery.

Shootout: Lonely Crusade ... An Homage to Jamel Shabazz at the McKenna Museum features 25 emerging photographers inspired by the street portraiture of Brooklyn photographer Shabazz from the early days of hip-hop, first in magazines and later in books like A Time Before Crack. Shabazz was a master of extemporaneous eloquence, but in this show, because each photographer is represented by only one or two images, it's hard to get any real sense of their individual vision, causing many to come across as glorified snapshots. Even so, it's a gritty, gutsy show that works as an installation. It also is an interesting counterpoint to the Prospect.1 exhibition (upstairs) of more formally posed portraits by prominent photographer Malick Sidibé of Mali produced during the African nation's transitional years in the '60s and '70s.

At 527 Gallery on Julia Street, Tina Freeman's obliquely related color photographs of elaborate graffiti in a vast, abandoned industrial building evoke an Anselm Kiefer take on a street-punk dystopia. And Lori Waselchuk's Love and Concrete show at the Photo Alliance Gallery explores life along North Claiborne Avenue from Tremé to the Ninth Ward in a series of finely produced black-and-white prints. A Louisiana artist formerly based in South Africa, Waselchuk eloquently documents local backstreets that have much in common with those in Shootout, but with the benefit of brass bands. Around the corner, the Darkroom's GUNS 'n US expo of work by Kyle Cassidy, Donna De Cesare, Frank Relle and Andre Lambertson provides a powerfully poetic look at American gun culture, from those who equate guns with family values to others who don't like violence but pack heat anyway.

Relle also has a solo show, Inside Eleven Homes, at the GSL Gallery. It explores how people, especially New Orleanians, accumulate things for sentimental reasons and transform them into talismanic, rather than functional, objects. Lacking the drama of his previous projects, this one is pointedly prosaic and psychological in effect. More community and subculture documentation appears in the work of Kevin Kline and Eddie Lanieri at Home Space on St. Roch Avenue. Kline's street portraits of ordinary Orleanians appear less ordinary when mounted in old bottles, which lend them the buoyant aura of votive candles, or messages in bottles. And Lanieri takes a walk on the wild side with portraits of drag queens in various stages of dress, part of her series exploring gender and identity.

Part art, part sociology, these shows reflect a burgeoning interest in the meaning of community, even as they represent only a portion of this year's extensive PhotoNOLA offerings.

Sunday, December 7, 2008



Through Jan. 18

Old U.S. Mint, 400 Esplanade Ave., 715-3968;

One of the many interesting discussions generated by the Prospect.1 biennial has to do with favorites. Almost everyone has not only a favorite artist or exhibit, but also a favorite venue. Of the two main exhibition halls occupied entirely by Prospect.1 artworks, the Contemporary Arts Center seems to be a favorite of artists with masters degrees, while the Old U.S. Mint appears to be a favorite of art buffs less steeped in trends and academia. Why that would be is anyone's guess, but one factor may be accessibility: the work at the Mint tends to be accessible in ways that are often sensual and occasionally humorous. The CAC stuff tends toward a grittier sort of Sturm und drang mingled with more cerebral conceptual musings. Both are meaty and provocative, but the work at the Mint may be more seductive, as evidenced in Blossom, by upstate New York-based artist Sanford Biggers.

An actual player piano entangled in a tree — the sort of juxtaposition Hurricane Katrina so often left in its wake — plays a familiar melody as if by a ghostly pianist. The melody is "Strange Fruit," a harmonically seductive song popularized by Billie Holiday, but the "strange fruit" in the lyrics actually refers to the bodies of lynched black men hanging from trees after authorities turned a blind eye — a stance some saw as analogous to the Bush administration's neglect of the city, especially the Lower Ninth Ward, in the wake of the storm. As if to drive home the point, Zwelethu Mthetwa's Common Ground Series of photographs of impoverished shantytowns in his native South Africa are shown with photos of flood-ravaged Lower Ninth Ward homes, and it's often difficult to tell them apart. Bold, colorful and gorgeously composed, they seduce the viewer into other worlds where many might not otherwise venture. Similarly, New Orleanian Deborah Luster uses archaic photo techniques to elegantly hypnotic effect in photographs of violent-crime sites in Orleans Parish.

Nigerian artist El Anutsui's large, metallic wall hangings are lushly sensual in their melding of African and Western abstraction, but look again and his materials turn out to be caps and foil from discarded liquor bottles woven with copper wire in a triumph of recycling, a literal transformation of trash into treasure. In like manner, Brazilian artist Beatriz Milhazes mines discarded styles from the past in the form of brightly colored op and pop icons from the '60s and '70s — plastic flowers, targets, Christmas and Carnival ornaments — transformed into a large and extraordinary mobile.

French New Yorker Anne Deleporte quite literally transformed yesterday's newspapers by pasting them on the Mint's walls and vaulted ceiling, and then painted everything sky blue except for key iconic images such as dancers, airplanes, dollars and snakes, all floating in space like the afterimages or apparitions of collective memory. Similarly, New Yorker Fred Tomaselli collages printed images of tiny eyes, lips and body parts along with colorful acrylic dots in paintings that meld the look of Mardi Gras beads, psychedelic patterning and DNA spirals in a tribute to regeneration in the wake of chaos.

If all this sounds a little lush, Los Angeles artist Stephen Rhodes takes us on a wild ride that seems almost inspired by John Belushi and the Marx Brothers. Like a parody of the Hall of Presidents at Disneyland, it's really his protest against the degradation of American ideals by various office holders, past and present. Japan's Yasumasa Morimura, a kind of transsexual Cindy Sherman, mocks the pretenses of art and politics in his hilariously madcap photo self-portraits. Local Serbo-Croatian artist Srdjan Loncar rounds it out with his acerbic Value installation, employing stacks of fake cash to comment on the way art and finance speculators have turned the world into a manic-depressive casino. Be that as it may, the Mint has never looked so good.


Sunday, November 30, 2008

St. Claude Collective + P.1: Pierre et Gilles

New Orleans has always been a city of surprises, but for the past few years two of the more surprising things remarked upon by visitors have been the vast scale of the damage inflicted by storm-related flooding, and the pluck, resilience and tenacity of the city's inhabitants as they rebuild under sometimes daunting circumstances. Central to this effort has been the innovative work of diverse people coming together to accomplish common goals. The adaptive reuse of the storm battered Universal Furniture building on St. Claude Avenue is a case in point. A project of the St. Claude Collective, an unusual coterie of artists, builders, architects, engineers and alternative healers, the Universal building now houses a police substation and a large exhibition of work by some of this city's more adventuresome artists, as well a Prospect.1 photographic installation. It one day will house futuristic endeavors of all sorts, but for now the cops and artists typify the truly unusual alliances that comprise the rebuilding effort.
With over 40 artists' works, it's a show that defies the easy comprehension, but some broad generalizations can be made. Perhaps because it was organized by Andy Antippas of Barrister's Gallery, a curator known for his provocative proclivities, the artists appear to have been unusually uninhibited, often even punchy. This makes for rambling yet--as even the New York Times felt obliged to note--consistently lively expo. One of the more noteworthy side effects of the Prospect.1 biennial is the way local artists were motivated to organize their own shows in tandem, and they often did so with flying colors. And if those colors sometimes clash or run, so be it. When you look at the big picture-at Prospect.1 and all of the local exhibitions it inspired-it soon becomes clear that this is an outpouring of creativity on an a scale unprecedented even in this preternaturally creative metropolis. It is monumental and extraordinary, and like all such things, it is composed of many little and not so little pieces.
One of the more intriguing things about this Universal expo is how the cop spaces and artist spaces sometimes seem to blend together. Through an easily overlooked door is a dimly lit space that might be a "ritual crimes" evidence room containing animal bones, crockery shards and ceremonial drums, but is actually Elizabeth Shannon's LOUISIANA EMBLEM installation. Some watercolors of svelte nudes clutching handguns are not crime depictions but portraits by Carol Leake with titles like SUZETTE WITH PISTOL.

And Malcolm McClay's replica of a terrorist holding pen that projects the viewer's image into its cage-like interior bears a resemblance to a nearby police interrogation room.

Even the Prospect.1 installation, a series of campy photos by Parisian artists Pierre et Gilles, contains components that might under other circumstances attract the interest of NOPD's sex crimes unit, but context is everything and the same might be said of many modernist figurative artists from Picasso and Francis Bacon to deKooning and Jeff Koons. Similarly, a lovely baroque metal bouquet of sensual forms by Chicory Miles turns out to be a cluster of disembodied breasts. Underscoring the Roman Polanski edge, a morbidly hypnotic video, BADLANDS, by Michael Greathouse, tracks vultures circling in the skies above a telephone pole.
More vibrantly redemptive are paintings like Sallie Ann Glassman's hallucinatory visions of downtown New Orleans awash in rainbow colors. Nearby, a chipper if minimal peppermint stick turns out to be Robin Levy's vastly elongated photographic C print of an umbilical cord. The effect of these works can be quite psychological as we see in Alan Gerson's MEN IN COATS, a Kafkaesque little army of men in suits, like those unearthed Chinese imperial warrior statues, cobbled from kneaded rubber erasers. This psychic complexity is typified by Myrtle von Damitz' painting, STRICKEN, which while outwardly morbid is also sublimely intricate, a celebration of the beauty that resides in decay, and vice versa.

The St. Claude Collective Exhibition: Group Exhibition of 40 New Orleans Artists
Through Jan. 18
Universal Furniture Bldg., 2372 St. Claude Ave., 525-2767;


Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Tony Fitzpatrick and Juan Carlos Quintana at Taylor/Bercier

Nostalgia is one of the least understood and most underestimated sources of creative inspiration—at least, so far as contemporary art is concerned. Novelists and poets have for ages plumbed the depths of their past experience with a mixture of dread and fond remembrance, but in contemporary art the kind of postmodernism that came to prominence in the 1980s mandated that artists be impersonal media critics, a phase that has somehow survived over the past quarter century mainly because so much of the New York art establishment still seems stuck in the 1980s. Fortunately, the rest of the world is not, and now that Wall Street has imploded, maybe the 1980s is finally over. Nostalgia takes many forms and the link between nostalgia and identity might be the subliminal frisson that gives this otherwise marginalized sensibility its unexpected punch. Berkeley-based painter Juan Carlos Quintana is Cuban, an identity expressed in his paintings in much the way that Cuban art almost always looks like Cuban art. But he was born to Cuban parents in Louisiana, grew up in New Orleans, and the Cuba of his longing is a land he has only briefly visited.

His new DENIZENS OF HAPPYLANDIA paintings meld tart commentaries on American materialism with a stylistically Cuban sensibility in otherworldly scenes peopled with cartoonish characters. Cultural boundaries are blurred in MISER’S LAST WISH, in which a bewildered figure leaning against a tree rubs his head, as if from a migraine, as a demonic fairy announces: “You’re down to your last one; make it fast.” In IDEOLOGICALLY CONFUSED BAILOUT PLAN, a battered banker and a jaded parrot view a muddled landscape from a hot air balloon. Here as in other works, there is a touch of Cuba’s long tradition of caricaturing the powerful, only now there is a sense that the differences between ordinary Americans and the victims of colonial oppression in the Caribbean may not be so great as we once thought. Strange, lush and surreal, these are provocative works by an artist who straddles both worlds.
In the case of Tony Fitzpatrick, the nostalgia is for the lyrical essence of the place where he grew up, as well as for another place that he has come to love. The former is the Chicago of his youth, a vision gleaned as a child accompanying his father on drives to his customers for burial plots and embalming fluid, then later during his adventures as a car thief for a chop shop. The latter is New Orleans, his home away from home. His affection for both is evident in his gorgeous collages and prints. One series of collages crafted in his poetically precise tattoo style is dedicated to Mardi Gras, both as a local institution and as a pervasive culture that colors the city and state. Another, more general, series features words embellished with charged imagery. RAZOR MEN features the words “Blood, Star, Razor, Men, Prayer,” in a bold vertical sequence embellished with dice, flowers, music notes and butterfly wings. Fitzpatrick says it refers to “men of a certain age” who carry straight razors for protection and who, if stopped by the police, “tell them they are barbers.” This is a universal image applicable to NOLA and Chicago, and is done in a style more typical of his work in Prospect.1. More local are works like THE KINGFISH, which looks like Mardi Gras masker, a crowned harlequin fish surrounded by flowers, skulls and a vintage Shell Oil sign, and is, ironically, all about Huey Long, whose “Every Man a King” motto flanks his feet. MARIGNY GIRL is his tribute to the Faubourg, and the cat-woman figure is an archetypical bohemian. Fitzpatrick says, “I love this neighborhood because there is no one kind of resident. It is a place with an imperishable imagination… full of what is possible in this world.”

Tony Fitzpatrick: THE NIGHT PARADE
Through November
Taylor/Bercier Fine Art, 233 Chartres St., 527-0072; www.taylorbercier

Friday, August 8, 2008

London by Helicopter at night

London photographer Jason Hawkes: "Shooting aerial photography has its difficulties, you are strapped tightly into a harness leaning out of the helicopter, shouting directions through the headsets to the pilot... Night and the lack of light causes its own set of problems. I shoot at night using the very latest digital cameras, mounted on either one or two gyro stabilized mounts, depending on the format of the camera and length of lens I'm having to use."

The city of London, at night, featuring the financial district, NatWest Tower, and the River Thames. (© Jason Hawkes)

Big Ben, above the Houses of Parliament. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Commuters and traffic at Oxford Circus. (© Jason Hawkes) #

The financial district, featuring the tip of 30 St. Mary's Axe, known by the nickname "The Gherkin". (© Jason Hawkes) #

A lonely curve of a city street. (© Jason Hawkes) #

A busy roundabout junction. (© Jason Hawkes) #

The Lloyd's Building, well-lit. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Building site at St George Street and Maddox Street. (© Jason Hawkes) #

The River Thames, featuring Tower Bridge. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Waterloo and Eurostar terminal. (© Jason Hawkes) #

The London Eye on the River Thames. (© Jason Hawkes) #

London's financial district, featuring the Lloyd's Building and The Gherkin. (© Jason Hawkes) #

A junction on the M25 motorway. (© Jason Hawkes) #

The view above Canary Wharf. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Tower Bridge and the Thames. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Canada Tower and neighboring office buildings at Canary Wharf. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Emirates Stadium, home of Arsenal Football Club. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Piccadilly Circus with the famous Statue of Eros. (© Jason Hawkes) #

Waterloo Bridge and the River Thames, also featuring the London Eye (center, seen from the side), the Royal National Theatre, and Waterloo Station. (© Jason Hawkes)

Monday, February 18, 2008

Whitman's New Orleans Daguerreotype Mystery

Notes on an Early Daguerreotype of Walt Whitman
by Denise Bethel

On a recent trip to the Walt Whitman Historic Site in Camden, New Jersey, I was given the opportunity to examine the early daguerreotype of Whitman located there.(1) This superb portrait (Saunders #1.1; WWQR [Walt Whitman Quarterly Review]--1840s, #2), showing the poet in frock coat and black cravat, may be the earliest photograph of Whitman extant and has been reproduced many times.(2) Whitman scholarship traditionally assigns this image to Whitman's New York newspaper days, during the author's stints on, say, the New York Aurora or the Brooklyn Eagle, with suggested dates ranging from the early to late 1840s.(3) In the image of Whitman presented--a serious young man, dressed in the style of the day, with one lock of hair turning prematurely grey--there is nothing to contradict this. After a brief survey of Whitman daguerreotype portraits,(4) however, I was struck by the absence of information regarding the physical attributes of this and other daguerreotypes of the author: what the plate sizes might be, how the images are cased or framed, what markings might be present that would be meaningful to a historian of nineteenth-century photographs, markings that might have been overlooked by literary scholars. My examination of the early Whitman daguerreotype in Camden yielded surprising results. Based on my knowledge of American daguerreotypes and how they were made, I propose that the Camden portrait of Whitman was not taken in New York, but in New Orleans, and thus can be dated precisely to that period of February to May 1848 when Whitman was 28 years of age.

First, a description of the Camden daguerreotype in standard photographic terms: the portrait is a half plate,(5) housed in a mahogany-colored passe-partout mount(6) and gilt wall frame. The size of the image, framed by the oval mat window, is slightly larger than quarter-plate size (sight size 4-7/8 x 3-1/2 inches), although the edges of the image extend beyond the mat opening, thus bringing the total plate size to that of a half-plate (approximately 5-1/2 x 4-1/4 inches). The daguerreotype is not presented in a case, as one might expect of a New York daguerreotype of the 1840s, but rather in a mahogany-colored glass passe-partout mount, measuring 6-3/8 x 5 inches, with gilt-edged window and a single gilt-ruled decorative border. The mount and its cover glass are sealed together, as is customary for daguerreotypes housed in this way, with matching mahogany- colored paper edging; the daguerreotype plate itself is sealed to the verso of the mount's card backing with paper strips, as was also common; covering the daguerreotype plate is a rectangle of brittle card, affixed to the back of the mount with further paper scraps. In my opinion, this passe-partout mount and its various paper seals are contemporary with the daguerreotype itself and are likely original. Although portions of the paper seal around the card covering the daguerreotype plate are beginning to split from age, the edges of this seal are largely undisturbed and show no signs of tampering.

The whole daguerreotype "package"--i.e., the daguerreotype plate, mount, and cover glass, sealed together-now is displayed in a gilt wooden frame with unmarked wooden backing. Although this frame is not new, it would be difficult to determine whether or not it is original to the piece, but this is a less important matter. As it is not attached in any way to the original daguerreotype package, the frame could be exchanged easily, even now, for another period frame of the same size, with no one the wiser. When I examined the daguerreotype, the frame's wooden backing was held in place by four small modem nails that were not at all rusted and hence quite easily removed, a sign that the frame had not remained undisturbed for decades. In this instance, fortunately, only the original daguerreotype package, with its mount and paper seals, was important for my purposes.

To a photographic historian, the first indication that the portrait might not have been made in New York City is the passe-partout mount in which the daguerreotype plate is housed. Amount of this nature is found customarily on European daguerreotypes, and more specifically, on daguerreotypes made in France. These mounts are sometimes made of paper, but more often are of glass, painted or varnished on the reverse in dark colors such as black or mahogany. They are typically larger than the daguerreotype plates they frame. American daguerreotypes, by contrast, are almost always found in brass mats that correspond in size to the outer dimensions of the daguerreotype plate and are housed in specially constructed miniature cases. In Whitman's time, these cases were made of wood covered in embossed paper or leather, with velvet or satin linings. The so-called "Christ likeness" of Whitman (Saunders 5, WWQR-1850s, #3), a daguerreotype now in the Oscar Lion Collection of the New York Public Library, conforms exactly to this "American formula": the oval brass mat matches the quarter-plate size of the image; the whole is housed in a quarter-plate-sized leather-covered case with floral design. When American daguerreotypes were framed for wall display, as they occasionally were, the standard brass mats usually remained on the images. This is not to say that American daguerreotypes are never, under any circumstances, found in passe-partout mounts; or that French daguerreotypes are never, under any circumstances, found in cases. From a daguerreotype connoisseur's perspective, however, a passe-partout mount is typically European, and more often than not, French in origin.

As Whitman never traveled to Europe, it seems a fair guess that the daguerreotype could have been made in a part of the United States where European materials, and a European aesthetic, would govern the choice of a daguerreotype's housing. In the 1840s, in New Orleans, there were dozens of daguerreotypists of French and German descent plying their trade.(7) Some, like the free man of color Jules Lion (c. 1816-1866), had been born in France; others, with names such as Charles Peyroux or Auguste Dubar or P. Langlume', appear fleetingly in New Orleans city directories, and we can only surmise their histories. Further research is needed to determine--if, indeed, a determination is possible--who in New Orleans might have taken the portrait. Suffice it to say that for a historian of daguerreotypes, the housing of the Camden image has a decidedly Continental flavor not at all characteristic of daguerreotypes made in the American northeast.

To my mind, the presentation of this early image in a passe-partout mount would be sufficient evidence at least to attribute the portrait to a New Orleans operator, but further examination of the daguerreotype offered what I consider nearly irrefutable proof that the plate was made in that city. When the wooden backing of the exhibition frame was carefully lifted--without disturbance to the original daguerreotype package--was able to see clearly the paper seal which affixes the card cover of the daguerreotype plate to the back of the mount. Plain paper was commonly used for this type of seal; sometimes the photographer also would include his studio label here or a more elaborately printed advertisement for this services. Often, one finds seals made of intriguing bits of scrap paper, and as with "binder's waste"--portions of manuscripts or printed materials used in the binding of early books--these scraps can be as illuminating as the object itself. In the case of the Camden daguerreotype, most of the seal is comprised of strips of plain paper browned with age. A portion of the seal, however, is a 4-1/4 x 1 inch scrap of what appears to be newsprint, in French, with the running head--Le Messager fortuitously preserved.

Le Messager was a bilingual newspaper published upriver from New Orleans in the town of Bringier in St. James Parish.(8) Known as the "Organe des paroisses Saint-Jacques et Saint Jean-Baptiste," its publisher was one C. A. Pieron, and it is believed to have been issued on a weekly basis from circa 24 July 1846 to circa 1860. Incomplete runs of the paper exist in several Louisiana libraries; the file at Tulane University, however, is complete from 1848 to 1855, and thus we can be sure that "Le Messager" was published continuously in the year that Whitman visited New Orleans. Whoever took the daguerreotype--or whoever worked in his studio--seems to have had an issue of the paper at hand to use in sealing Whitman's daguerreotype plate to the back of the mount. If there was ever a daguerreotypist's label on the back of the passe-partout mount, or on the frame, it is now lost; this small scrap of Le Messager, however, serves almost as well as a label to locate the daguerreotype in the Louisiana of the 1840s that Whitman knew.

In the coming months, I intend to investigate the Camden daguerreotype's connections to New Orleans more fully, in hopes of discovering which daguerreotypist might have made the portrait--if indeed, his identity can ever be known. I wanted at this time, however, to share my observations with the Whitman scholarly community, for I feel that the evidence thus far points conclusively to the daguerreotype's New Orleans origin. I would appreciate hearing from Whitman scholars with specialized knowledge of the author's New Orleans activities who might aid me in this search.

This article was reprinted in the Daguerreian Annual 1994 with permission from the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review 9 (Winter 1992):148-53. Footnotes appear in (parentheses).


    (1) I wish to thank Christian M. Bethmann, Superintendent 1, Lebanon State Forest, New Jersey State Park Service, for so graciously allowing me to inspect the Camden daguerreotype. I would also like to thank Grant Romer, Photographic Conservator, International Museum of Photography and Film at George Eastman House, Rochester, New York, for discussing with me the terminology and construction of the passe-partout mount and especially Michael Deas, author of The Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1989), for speedily providing me with information on "Le Messager".
    (2) The portrait is sometimes reproduced in Henry S. Saunders, Whitman Portraits (Toronto: N.p., 1922) as #I. 1; the Walt Whitman Quarterly Review, Volume 4, Nos. 2-3, Fall/Winter, 1986-1987, reproduces it as the second portrait from the decade of the 1840s. See also Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), plate 6; Henry Seidel Canby, Walt Whitman: An American; A Study in Biography (New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1943), plate IV; and the Godine edition of Walt Whitman, Specimen Days (Boston, 197 1), 124.
    (3) WWQR places the portrait in the early 1840s, when Whitman worked on the Aurora, and tentatively suggests John Plumbe, Jr., as the photographer. Kaplan, op. cit., captions the picture as "Walt Whitman in the 1840s at about age twenty-five." Canby, op. cit., also attributes the plate to Plumbe and describes it as "Walt Whitman in the 1840s or the earliest 1850s," "probably taken while he was editor of The Brooklyn Eagle."
    (4) For a special Whitman issue of Seaport Magazine (New York: South Street Seaport Museum, Winter, 199 1), I was asked to contribute a general article on Whitman and the daguerreotype. In that article I followed Whitman scholarship in attributing this early image to a New York photographer of the 1840s; I regret that I was not able to examine the Camden plate until after that article went to press.
    (5) A daguerreotype is commonly described in terms of its plate size-e.g., half-plate, quarter-plate, sixth-plate-rather than its dimensions in inches or centimeters. The "whole plate" supplied to Daguerreotypists by manufacturers of photographic equipment measured about 6-1/2 x 8-1/2 inches; smaller plates approximated a rough division of the whole pate into halves, quarters, and the like.
    (6) Passe-partout mount is the terminology used in referring to a mount, or mat, with its central portion cut out to receive a picture. This opening is referred to as the mount or mat "window."
    (7) Cf. Margaret Denton Smith and Mary Louis Tucker, Photography in New Orleans: The Early Years, 1840-1865 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), Chapters 1 and 2 (pp. 8-52), and especially the biographical checklist of New Orleans photographers, 151-171. This is the best and most comprehensive study of early New Orleans photography to date. The litany of French and German names in the biographical checklist is fascinating: Boucher, Bouny, Bourges, Boutevillian, Camille, Censier, Contant, Daliet, Dauboin, Dumoulin, Enful, Fleischbein, Guay, Heidingsfelder, Lilienthal, Moissenet, Pointel Du Portail, Schleier, Treihl, to name but a few.
    (8) The Louisiana State Newspaper Project Printout, April, 1990 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1990), 159.