PhotoNOLA, the annual celebration of photography coordinated by the New Orleans Photo Alliance, begins this week with exhibitions throughout the rest of December. Take a break from browsing the schedule of events to look back with us at five New Orleans photographers whose work has left an indelible mark on the world.
Say “Storyville” to someone even remotely familiar with New Orleans’ famous red light district and it’s likely E.J. Bellocq’s iconic 1912 photograph of a prostitute in striped stockings will flicker to mind. This much-copied and much-referenced image is embedded in popular culture, and the whole of Bellocq’s Storyville work continues to haunt film, television and literature.
A conventional photographer in his professional life, Bellocq’s Storyville portraits elevated him to near-legendary status, but not until well after his death in 1949. While Bellocq seems to have printed only a handful of these 8×10 glass plate negatives himself, photographer Lee Friedlander in the late sixties acquired the 89 extant plates and began printing them at both 8×10 and 16×20. An exhibit of these prints at the Museum of Modern Art in 1970 would make Bellocq (and the photos) famous.
While it’s impossible now to view these images outside their historical and cultural context, one thing that distinguishes many of Bellocq’s Storyville photos is how casual they seem. Credit for this Bellocq’s friendly familiarity with his subjects — he may well have spent time in the Storyville brothels, but he was apparently never sexually involved with the women he photographed. Much has also been made of Bellocq having a slight skull deformity due to hydrocephalus; if true, so the theory goes, was he an outsider moving easily among other outsiders? (Bellocq is also rumored to have taken photos of Chinese opium dens in New Orleans, though none have ever surfaced.)
Storyville Portraits (1970) collected these images in book form for the first time, and prints of all but two of the plates are available though A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans. http://www.agallery.com/pages/photographers/bellocq.html
See more of Bellocq’s Storyville photos here: http://www.atgetphotography.com/The-Photographers/Bellocq.html
“Photography,” Laughlin once asserted, “is one of the most authentic and integral modes of expression possible.”
The first true surrealist photographer in America, Clarence John Laughlin was a complex and sometimes difficult man. Irascible and stubborn — he worked briefly for Vogue in the 30s but left due to a disagreement with editor Edward Steichen — Laughlin was driven by the certainty of his vision. Wildly literate, leaving behind a library of 30,000 volumes upon his death, he considered his writing just as important as his photos.
Self-taught, using only a small view camera, Laughlin crafted powerful compositions, often using double exposures to create a montage effect in camera. Through this technique he constructed dreamlike scenes that ranged from the romantic to the unsettling. As a “Haunter of Ruins,” as one posthumous book dubbed him, he laid down a path for every photographer who has ever taken a model into a New Orleans cemetery to wed beauty with the rough textures of decay.
In addition to being a fine art photographer, he was also a fervent preservationist. Many of his photos reflect a crumbling, disappearing Southern world, and he wrote passionately of the importance of Southern plantation architecture. His advocacy for saving these plantation buildings from disrepair and ruin unfortunately went unheeded for years, but his photographs of these buildings figure prominently in his first book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi (1948), which established his reputation.
Laughlin’s negatives, prints, writings (both published and unpublished) and personal papers are held at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
Jack Robinson is likely the least well-known name on this list, and it’s entirely his own doing. Leaving New Orleans in the 1950s to pursue a successful career shooting fashion and celebrity portraits in New York, Robinson in 1972 walked away from photography completely, moved to Memphis, and became a stained glass designer. He spoke little of his former life, and when he died in 1997 his landlord found boxes and boxes of carefully organized negatives in Robinson’s closet.
Originally from Meridian, Mississippi, Robinson came to New Orleans to attend Tulane University. He left before graduating but ultimately remained in the city, working as a graphic artist and shooting street photos downtown and in the French Quarter. Robinson’s New Orleans photos reveal a strong compositional sense already in place, and once in New York his gift for portraiture, glimpsed in some of the early photos, flourished. Often with just one light against a seamless paper backdrop, he drew something enigmatic from all his subjects.
By 1965 he was shooting both fashion and celebrity portraits regularly for Vogue, where he became the favorite of editor Diana Vreeland. Unfortunately, after he began running with Andy Warhol’s Factory crowd, he developed a drinking problem, and by the early 70s his work had declined to such a degree that he decided to abandon it. He moved to Memphis to be with his parents, quit drinking, and never looked back.
Twenty-four of Robinson’s 1950s New Orleans street portraits are currently on display in the Canal Street window of the Sheraton New Orleans Hotel. On Show: Portraits 1958-72, just the kind of retrospective coffee table book Robinson told close friends he wanted posthumously, has been published by Palazzo Editions.
To see more of Robinson’s photos of New Orleans in the 50s and a selection of his celebrity work visit http://cargocollective.com/jackrobinson1950neworleans
For more of his editorial work in New York go to robinsonarchive.com
Smith was a tireless documentarian of New Orleans’ black musical and spiritual culture who shot every Jazz Fest from 1970 (the first) to 2004, creating an impressive number of iconic images along the way. In addition to the raw energy he regularly captured at the Fest, Smith put jazz funerals, parades, church traditions and Mardi Gras Indians on film in a way no other photographer ever had.
Growing up in Metairie, Smith was oblivious to New Orleans Jazz and the culture surrounding it, but once he heard the music in the late 60s, he’d found his calling. Shooting drummer Paul Barbarin’s jazz funeral in 1969 sealed the deal, and he turned away from his suburban upbringing to immerse himself in the city’s vibrant folk traditions.
He was no mere interloper, though, and quickly became a part of the culture himself. In a 2004 interview, Mardi Gras Indian Big Chief Larry Bannock was quick to point out that “Mike Smith wasn’t a cultural pirate. He gave back.” Smith’s dedication earned him an intimate audience with his subjects, allowing him to capture images of remarkable candor and honesty. He was not only documenting culture, but creating cultural artifacts himself that preserved some measure of the spirit of the world he photographed.
Exhibited around the world, Smith’s work has been the subject of five books, and his negatives and prints are now housed at the Historic New Orleans Collection. The New Orleans Photo Alliance gives out a grant annually in Smith’s name to a photographer “whose work combines artistic excellence and a sustained commitment to a long-term cultural documentary project.”
Beginning his career as a painter, George Dureau turned to photography in the early 70s with a focus on the male and female nude, but rather than simply transpose the classical inclinations of his painter’s eye into his photo work, Dureau approached those he photographed not as objects, but as friends and, occasionally, lovers. Edward Lucie Smith, in the introduction to Dureau’s book New Orleans: Fifty Photographs, wrote that “the photographer and his subjects have entered into a shared enterprise, whose purpose is to record not only outward appearances, but an inner sense of worth in the person being photographed.” Consequently, Dureau’s renowned portraits and nudes of amputees, midgets, and men born with severe birth defects avoid exploitation, and instead breathe with a sense of compassion that’s never condescending.
In a 1991 interview with writer Jack Fritscher, Dureau said, “I’m very much a humanist. I’m very involved with the people I shoot. My photographs are family pictures. Very sentimental…. I remember Sam [Wagstaff, art curator/collector and benefactor of Robert Mapplethorpe] looking at a large selection of my photographs. He just kept staring at me as if to say, you must be crazy to like these people: lovely, handsome, young men, poor whites and blacks, oftentimes with missing limbs. My photographs say quite clearly that I like everybody I photograph.”
Robert Mapplethorpe was so taken with Dureau’s work in the 70s that he made a number of trips to New Orleans to see George, and eventually owned thirty of his prints. Dureau and his American and European fans, as well as perceptive art critics, noted the subsequent influence on Mapplethorpe, who shared an affinity for the black male nude. But as Dureau was quick to point out, Mapplethorpe’s sensibilities were much colder and more commercially driven. Nonetheless, when Mapplethorpe was on his deathbed he had one of George’s prints hanging on the wall near him.
Although Fifty Photographs is out of print, a monograph covering Dureau’s career is currently in the works. View a wide selection of his photos at http://arthurrogergallery.com/artists/george-dureau/