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Photography at NOMA
NOMA Opens Retrospective, 132 of 10,000 Photos from Permanent Collection
The New Orleans Museum of Art has almost 10,000 photos in its permanent collection: far more than enough to wallpaper its Great Hall. Curator Russell Lord has chosen 132 for the museum’s first photography retrospective since 1978, opening to the public today, Sunday, November 10. “Photography at NOMA: Selections from the Permanent Collection” gives viewers a peek at the best of the archive and demonstrates the medium of photography’s vast range of styles, uses, and ambitions.
Lord emphasized that the exhibit, which includes photographers of many different nationalities and spans from 1843 to 1985, is not a history of photography, which is why the photos are not displayed chronologically. “When you make things chronological, it immediately implies that it is a history,” said Lord. “But this much more reflects the tastes of NOMA and its curators.”
Instead, the photographs’ sequence is based around visual themes and approaches, enabling visitors to connect the dots from photo to photo. “Sometimes it’s visual, and sometimes you have to know the story,” said Lord. “And sometimes I don’t tell you.” Certain associations are easy to make, like the visual link between a minimalist photo of seaweed draped on sand, and a portrait of a female nude. After a glance at the woman, the seaweed suddenly seems to echo her shape. With these juxtapositions, Lord aims to highlight the cyclical nature of photography.
Why 132 photographs, a seemingly random quantity? Choosing images based on complexity, compelling visual appeal, and excellent condition, Lord couldn’t bring himself to cut any more. “We would be losing something,” he said. The show focuses on classic and historic holdings, intentionally eschewing more contemporary photography; another of the exhibit’s goals is to inspire donors to help build the museum’s contemporary photography collection.
The presentation of “Photography at NOMA” is visually striking for its simplicity. Framed simply in black, photographs are mounted in a single horizontal line down gallery walls. The arrangement gives each photo equal priority. A single piece of wall text at the gallery entrance will offer viewers more background; otherwise, the photos will “sing” for themselves. “I really wanted this to be a visual story,” said Lord.
Because the show includes a range of photographs both amateur and professional, as well as advertisements, social documents, and snapshots, Lord says that calling it an exhibition of masterpieces would be a misnomer. But a photograph doesn’t have to be a masterpiece to be profound. Sometimes, all it takes is time and history to give a photo stunning context, as with a small picture of a group of German children that’s included in the exhibit. This could be a class photo, and would be utterly uninteresting if not for the swastika to the children’s right. Thus we can’t avoid associating these kids with Nazism, though they most likely had no idea what the future would hold.
Walking into “Photography at NOMA,” the first photograph you see is a recent acquisition. It’s a faded print not of a person, object, or scene, but a word: “TALBOTYPE”. Named for its inventor, William Henry Fox Talbot, the photo is a calotype, achieved by exposing paper coated with silver chloride to a bright light source. Talbot’s assistant created the photograph with a stencil of his employer’s name as a demonstration of the process, and it’s believed to be one-of-a-kind. “The word is the image, and the image is a word,” said Lord. It’s an endless circle of reference—like photography itself.
NOMA plans to release a “Photography at NOMA” book, including all of the images in the exhibit, in January 2014.
Image courtesy of the New Orleans Museum of Art
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