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Looking at Louisiana

A new photography book from The Historic New Orleans Collection

Looking at Louisiana

The Historic New Orleans Collection

Edward L. Wilson, Horticultural Hall—From the Lake, 1885. Albumen print.

Men stand atop felled trees amid glassy water, clearing a logjam in 1873. A child’s gaze centers a teeming barnyard scene at a plantation. Light streams in through a window, hazing the view of St. Louis Cathedral beyond. The images emerge from the past and greet us in the present, portals to a landscape spanning 175 years of Louisiana history. They tell the ever-evolving story of a medium of frozen moments and an institution’s dedication to their preservation.

Louisiana Lens: Photographs from The Historic New Orleans Collection, by John H. Lawrence with a foreword by Jeff L. Rosenheim of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is a journey through time as seen through photographers’ instruments, eyes, and darkroom techniques. The 175 images in its pages range from bayou to boulevard to studio. They capture bygone events, people, and places—a prize fight in 1882, child workers at a New Orleans cotton mill in 1913, a trapper’s camp in 1939—but ever present is the spark of life. It can be seen in the eyes of Shakespeare, a Jamaican man looking toward the horizon in an 1871 portrait. It’s in the vibrant composition of a Walker Evans streetscape. It’s in the rapture of worship seen in a 1979 Michael P. Smith image taken at the Holy Family Spiritual Church.

Milton Melton, photo of Mardi Gras costume, after 1955. Color transparency. Gift of Stephen Scalia, The Historic New Orleans Collection.

The accompanying text limns not only the subjects of the images but also the photographic processes that allow us to see these scenes and faces today. Lawrence traces the development of photographic equipment and technical processes alongside the growth and change of New Orleans and Louisiana over nearly two centuries. The story unfolds chronologically, beginning ca. 1843 with a dramatic daguerreotype of a church organ in shadow against the white vaulted ceiling of St. Patrick’s Church—the oldest photograph in THNOC’s holdings—and concludes with a coastal landscape from 2018. In surveying these selections, Lawrence touches on themes of architecture, music, commerce, race, arts and culture, and the changing landscapes and geographies of the US South.

Lawrence retired in 2020 after forty-six years with The Historic New Orleans Collection, where he spent decades building the institution’s photographic holdings. As head of curatorial collections, he oversaw pictorial and object holdings numbering in excess of five hundred thousand items. As director of museum programs, he was responsible for planning and implementing exhibitions, lectures, seminars, and related activities.

From that trove of knowledge comes Louisiana Lens. As Rosenheim writes in his foreword, “Even for those well steeped in the city’s unique traditions, the book offers a provocative study of New Orleans and the river region. What emerges from Louisiana Lens, and the collection on which it is based, is the construction of a new and elegant history of photography in the United States seen through the wide-angle lens of the Crescent City.”

Louisiana Lens is available at hnoc.org/shop or your local bookseller.