As a photographer and curator, John Lawrence has played a major role in the New Orleans photographic community for more than thirty years.
As a photographer and curator, John H. Lawrence has played a major role in the New Orleans photographic community for more than thirty years. Born in New Orleans in 1953, Lawrence graduated from Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York, before returning to his hometown in 1975 to begin his curatorial career at The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC), where he now serves as director of museum programs.
Lawrence’s photographs, which have been widely exhibited in galleries in New Orleans and throughout the United States, portray urban architecture, interiors, cemeteries, and stark landscapes photographed in black and white. “My purpose … is to express a strong human presence without necessarily including human subjects,” Lawrence said. “My approach is straightforward, my intent is expressionistic.”
The photographer’s early exposure to modernism by his architect father John W. Lawrence, dean of the Tulane School of Architecture from 1959 to 1971, can be seen in his formal, sharply focused, and meticulously composed images. Many of his photographs transform ordinary scenes into pictures of “compelling art by exquisite framing,” as critic Doug MacCash noted. His Daybreak, Poolside, Bossier City, LA, an aerial view of wooden chairs and an umbrella next to a swimming pool, illustrates his “remarkable ability to frame shots of the most ordinary, even unsightly buildings and landscapes in a sensitive, elegant way,” wrote MacCash in a 1999 review for the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Symbolism plays a large role in Lawrence’s imagery. “The symbolic aspect of the photographs may be literary, psychological, spiritual or rational,” Lawrence has written. “My hope is that each picture will contain at least one of these elements, and that different people will find varied themes in viewing the same work.”
His photograph Bench is an austere representation of a solitary bench and the shadows it casts on the ground. In the center of the bench we can see an octagon of light caused by the camera lens. Viewers are left to interpret what the picture means. It could be a formal study of line and light. It could, as MacCash suggested, “easily symbolize a spiritual presence.”
In his role as curator and director of museum programs, Lawrence has helped establish The Historic New Orleans Collection as an important resource for the study of Louisiana photography. Lawrence has produced many exhibitions at the THNOC about significant Louisiana photographers, including New Orleans Through the Eyes of Charles L. Franck in 1979, Music in the Streets: Photographs of New Orleans by Ralston Crawford in 1983, Light and Time: 150 Years of New Orleans Photography in 1989, Through a Lens Softly: The Photographs of Eugene Delcroix in 1994, A Storyville Scrapbook in 1997, In the Spirit: Photographs from the Michael P. Smith Archive in 2008, and A Closer Look: The Antebellum Photographs of Jay Dearborn Edwards, 1857–1862 in 2008.
During his tenure at THNOC, Lawrence has expanded its holdings by acquiring collections of photographs by many Louisiana photographers, including Jay Dearborn Edwards, Clarence John Laughlin, Charles L. Franck, Michael P. Smith, Jules Cahn, Lyle Bongé, Guy Bernard, and Eugene Delcroix.
Among his many writings about photographs are introductions to books and catalogues of photographs, such as Dogs in My Life: The Photographs of John Tibule Mendes, In the Spirit: Photographs from the Michael P. Smith Archive, Terra Incognita: Photography by Richard Sexton, and Walker Evans and Jane Ninas in New Orleans, 1935–36. He served as picture editor for the revised 1997 edition of New Orleans: An Illustrated History and has contributed numerous reviews and articles to The New Orleans Art Review and The Historic New Orleans Quarterly.
Lawrence has emerged as one of the leading scholars on the work of Clarence John Laughlin, whose photographs he has acquired, exhibited, written and lectured about over the years. He coedited and contributed an essay to Haunter of Ruins: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin, published by Bulfinch Press in 1997. He produced an exhibit of Laughlin’s photographs the same year at the HNOC, where he had earlier curated Other Ghosts Along the Mississippi: Photographs of Clarence J. Laughlin in 1985.
In 1997, he was awarded a visiting-artist residency at the Ecole Nationale de la Photographie in Arles, France. Lawrence’s photographs are in the collections of the City of New Orleans; The Historic New Orleans Collection; the Louisiana State Museum; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas in Austin; the University of Louisville in Kentucky; and his alma mater, Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York.