The Worth of 10 Pictures
A new photo exhibition highlights Louisiana’s photographic history
By Emily NemensPosted Jun 13, 2012
Good things come in small packages, as proven in the current exhibition at the Hill Memorial Library, “Change(less): Photography and the Ephemeral Made Permanent.” The exhibition, which consists of just 10 images from the Hill’s collection of photographs, manages to cover a lot of territory from our region’s history: New Orleans to Natchez, architectural studies to Mardi Gras parades.
Sissy Albertine, library associate, and Mark Martin, photographic processing archivist, co-curated the show. It began as a response to the traveling photography exhibition at the LSU Museum of Art, “A Tale of Two Cities: Eugène Atget’s Paris and Berenice Abbott’s New York.” In that show, two photographers documented the changes in their respective cities.
Exploring Hill Memorial Library’s collection of over 250,000 photos, Martin and Albertine couldn’t find a completely parallel project. Instead, they decided to shift the focus from how we document change to what makes those documents important.
“What makes a photograph a document?” Martin said. “Is it intentionality of the photographer? Is it the passage of time? Is it something we assign to it years later?”
The curators asked these questions as they brought together 10 exceptional images. The photographs, some over 125 years old, offer a wide variety of answers. The photos aren’t just about history. There’s art in them, too.
“There’s something about a particular event that makes a photographer want to create an image. What is it about those moments that attracts a photographer’s eye and creates a good photograph? Because there’s plenty of bad photographs out there, but these are examples of exceptional photos,” Martin said.
The success of these photographs is highlighted by the prints themselves. Albertine, who has spent 25 years in Hill Memorial Library’s dark room, developed all the prints the old fashioned way: by hand. She used the original negatives – in some cases negatives etched onto glass, in other instances large-format plates 10 inches tall – to print the photographs, and her craftsmanship shows. In an era where a few clicks in Photoshop will correct just about anything, seeing Albertine’s delicate touch is impressive in its own right.
Nineteenth century New Orleans’ close connections to France meant that photography was fast to arrive in Louisiana. The first daguerreotype studio opened in New Orleans just a few months after the technology was invented in France. Daguerrotype is a noun describing a photograph taken by an early process that employed an iodine-sensitized silvered plate and mercury vapor.
Still, photography remained a luxury until well into the 20th century. Early portraits – including a pair of 1885 portraits, one of an African-American woman, and one of a well-to-do man on his penny-farthing bicycle – begin to tell a story about the person who commissioned them. Similarly, a pair of architectural photographs captures not only buildings in question, but also the surrounding street scenes.
The 10 photos on view come from six different collections and reflect the work of both professional and amateur photographers working in the area. (Some of the studios date back to the 1850s, but the photographs on view date from the 1880s to the 1930s.) Andrew Lytle made a name for himself as one of the few photographers working in the South during the Civil War. Jasper G. Ewing’s studio was in downtown Baton Rouge, near where the Shaw Center now stands. An assortment of cameras, dating from the 1910s to the 1940s, is also on view.
Just as striking as the range of subject matter, from political action to family portraits, is the variety of photographic forms represented. There are formal studies of light and shadow, candid shots of crowd scenes, and staged portraits. The installation itself creates another level of juxtaposition. Martin and Albertine paired related images, to show how two different photographers react to the same subject matter. Two views of neoclassical architecture, two busy views of New Orleans’ Canal Street, portraits of both a white family and an African-American one: the similarities and differences between each pair are as breathtaking and as fascinating as the photos themselves.
“Change(less): Photography and the Ephemeral Made Permanent” is on view through July 21. The exhibition is free. Hours of operation are 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily, except on Tuesdays when classes are in session, and when the library closes at 8 p.m. Exhibition is also open to the public on Saturdays from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. For more information, visit www.Lib.Lsu.edu/Special/.