So just what is a photograph, anyway? Once as rare as they now are ubiquitous, photographs were first made with metals like zinc, copper and silver in near-alchemical processes that gave us delicate little images like the mysterious daguerreotypes that made ordinary people look as silvery and luminous as specters. Here just about every form of photography is represented thanks to the prescience of former New Orleans Museum of Art director John Bullard, who began building the museum's extensive collection several decades ago, just as photography began to be widely accepted as an art form.
In a sense, photography parallels the history of modernism with its emphasis on science and the prosaic surfaces of everyday life, so it is fitting the first known photograph, a view of some French rooftops by Nicephore Niepce, suggests an abstract painting. Here a copy of Niepce's photo is accompanied by a large blowup printout of its digital code, the cybernetic DNA used to reproduce it as an image on a smart phone or computer screen, symbolically encompassing the entire history of this most protean of media from past to present. The oldest photographs on view include Anna Atkins' gorgeous 1850 cyanotype Ceylon, a ghostly print of Asian fern fronds, and an 1855 mourning bracelet elaborately woven from human hair with a built-in daguerreotype of a child. Arnold Genthe's atmospheric 1923 French Quarter courtyard looks more ancient than it is, a ghostly sepia time capsule on paper, and Berenice Abbott's 1932 Night View, New York — a jazzy panorama of brightly lit skyscrapers like a cluster of glowing crystals — evokes the romance of modernism's past. Clarence John Laughlin's Elegy for the Old South (pictured) plantation house photomontage employs surrealist collage techniques to capture the dreamy convoluted madness of William Faulkner country. What this show really illustrates is that, more than just objects, photographs are both mental and physical icons, mechanical elaborations of memory, personal or societal, frozen in time. — D. Eric Bookhardt