Sunday, August 5, 2012

What is a Photograph? at NOMA


Clarence John Laughlin's Elegy for the Old South

So just what is a photograph, anyway? Once as rare as they are now everywhere, photographs were first made with metals in near- alchemical processes that gave us delicate little images like the mysterious Daguerreotypes that made ordinary folks look as silvery and luminous as specters. But here every form of photography is represented thanks to prescient former NOMA director John Bullard, who began building the museum's major collection just as  it was finally becoming accepted as an art form several decades ago.

Digital code blowup of earliest known photograph, below left.

In a sense, photography parallels the history of modernism itself with its emphasis on science and the prosaic surfaces of everyday life, so it is fitting that the first known photograph, a view of some French rooftops by Nicéphore Niépce, suggests an abstract painting. Here a copy of Niépce's photo is accompanied by a large blowup printout of its digital code, the cybernetic DNA that would be used to reproduce it as an image on a smart phone or computer screen, symbolically encompassing the entire history of this most protean of media from past to present. The oldest photographs on view include Anna Atkins's gorgeous 1850 cyanotype Ceylon, a ghostly print of Asian fern fronds, and an 1855 mourning bracelet elaborately woven from human hair with a built in Daguerreotype of a child. Arnold Genthe's atmospheric 1923 French Quarter courtyard, bottom, looks more ancient than it is, a ghostly sepia time capsule on paper, even as Berenice Abbott's 1932 New York City at Night--a jazzy panorama of brightly lit skyscrapers like a cluster of glowing crystals--evokes the romance of modernism's past. But Clarence Laughlin's Elegy for the Old South (No. 2) plantation house photomontage uses surrealist collage techniques to capture the dreamy convoluted madness of Faulkner country, top, and what this show really illustrates is that, more than mere objects, photographs are both mental and physical icons, mechanical elaborations of memory, personal or societal, frozen in time. ~Bookhardt


What is a Photograph?: Exhibition Explores the Definition of Photography, Through August 19, New Orleans Museum of Art
City Park, 658-4100