Sunday, January 5, 2014

Photography at NOMA: Selections from the Collection

Everybody knows about this city's pioneering role in the history of music and food, but what about photography? Blank looks are the usual response to that question, yet not only was the South's first photo studio located here, it belonged to Jules Lion, who became America's first black photographer after studying with Daguerre. Likewise, longtime French Quarter fixture Clarence Laughlin was America's first home grown surrealist photographer, and the New Orleans Museum of Art's extensive photography collection of some 10,000 works was also ahead of its time. For that we can thank former NOMA director John Bullard, who made it a personal priority shortly after assuming his post some four decades ago, back when few museums considered photography an art. This show features 130 significant works from the collection by many leading names in the field.  

Featured images range from British photographic pioneer William Fox Talbot's evocative 1843 view of a Paris street scene to Robert Mapplethorpe's 1982 French Quarter staircase composition. Minimal to an almost abstract extent, this was a departure from the influence of his Nola mentor, George Dureau, whose empathetically edgy oeuvre was a major influence on Mapplethorpe's early work. Photography connoisseurs will find much to like in the form of less known works by big name lensmen like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Lee Friedlander, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Hans Bellmer interspersed with iconic images like Lewis Hine's Mechanic and Steam Pump, 1920, left, among works by Robert Frank and Diane Arbus, among others. There are also some outstanding examples of work by under-appreciated female photographers such as Ilse Bing (New York, The Elevated and Me, above) and Hannah Hoch. Local classics include the legendary bordello photographer E. J. Bellocq's Seated Prostitute with Mask, top left, as well as Arnold Genthe's ultra-impressionist French Quarter scenes and Robert Frank's classic 1955 shot of zombie-like Canal Street pedestrians. But Clarence Laughlin's Mangled Staircase, below, illustrates how old architecture and surrealism blend seamlessly into Nola's unique cultural gumbo, while revealing why Laughlin himself was the godfather of the new generation of local surrealist photographers. ~Bookhardt    

Photography at NOMA: Selections from the Permanent Collection, Through Jan. 19, New Orleans Museum of Art, City Park, 658-4100.