Wednesday, August 15, 2018

Looking Again: Inside the New Orleans Museum of Art's Massive New Photography Book

New Orleans Museum of Art photography curator Russell Lord’s massive book, Looking Again: Photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art, co-published in March by Aperture and NOMA, suggests our most familiar local art institution harbors its share of semi-secret history. Although known in museum circles for being ahead of its time when it first began collecting art photography in 1973, when E. John Bullard made it his first priority upon becoming director in January of that year, Lord's erudite overview reveals that its pioneering photography exhibitions began in 1916. Because the collection features such a strategic mix of works by the world's most iconic photographers, as well as images by lesser-known figures that illuminate overlooked or forgotten aspects of local or global history, it is a collection that amounts to a nuanced visual history of civilization. For instance, Felix Moissenet's mysterious and striking 1852 daguerreotype of a well-dressed black man raises no end of questions. Who was he? Its velvet case provides the photographer's studio address on Camp Street, suggesting the subject likely was part of the city's unusually large, affluent community of free people of color. His commanding persona and its superb quality all seem to bear that out, but it is his preternatural presence with the forthright gaze of an emissary from an all-but-forgotten culture greeting us from across time that makes it so extraordinary. It is a picture that, as Lord writes, “might have been possible only in New Orleans.”

Daniel Louis Mundy's 1867 photograph The Extinct Dinornis or Moa Bird takes us to Victorian-era New Zealand where dinosaurlike bird skeletons towering over a bearded scientist telescope us into an age when the sun never set on Britain's empire and Darwin's theory of evolution was almost as influential. Science and technology were celebrated for more pragmatic reasons in America, where Lewis Wickes Hine was known for his heroic views of workers, typified by his circa 1920 Mechanic and Steam Pump. He also was a social critic whose shocking images of children and immigrants suffering in squalid conditions set the stage for controversies that still dominate the headlines. More>>