INTO THE LIGHT
In many respects, the history of photography in the American South is the history of American photography. Twentieth-century masters identified with the South expanded, and in many cases redefined, the medium.
In fact, “it could be said that photography is the South’s greatest contribution to 20th century art,” Richard McCabe, curator of photography at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, said.
While much of Southern painting and sculpture during the same period retained a regional focus, Southern photography engaged with major artistic trends in the rest of the United States and elsewhere in the world.
Even a partial list of prominent Southern photographers reads like a “who’s-who” list of superstars of the medium: E.J. Bellocq, Eudora Welty, Clarence John Laughlin, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Birney Imes, William Christenberry, William Eggleston and Sally Mann, just to name a few.
Not coincidentally, these and other artists form the backbone of the photography collection at the Ogden. And works by many of them are prominently featured in the museum’s new exhibition “Into the Light: Photographs from the Permanent Collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art” this summer.
According to McCabe, “Into the Light” was conceived as both a celebration of the museum’s 10th anniversary in its current location in the Warehouse District of New Orleans as well as a means of highlighting the depth and range of its permanent photography collection.
“The Ogden has over 800 photographic objects in its collection,” McCabe said, “the oldest being from the mid- and late-19th century.”
Particular strengths of the Ogden’s collection include Depression-era photographs from the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration program by Walker Evans and others; Louisiana-based photographers like Bellocq, Laughlin and George Dureau; and pioneers of color photography including Christenberry, Eggleston, Imes, and William Greiner, the curator said.
McCabe added that he’s also been particularly interested in presenting work by emerging Louisiana photographers — what he calls “New Southern Photography” — since he became the Ogden’s curator of photography in 2010.
To that end, the exhibit also features works by younger artists including Kathleen Robbins, Michael Meads and Alec Soth.
With such a wide range of material from which to choose, McCabe wanted to focus on works in the Ogden’s considerable holdings that audiences have not had the opportunity to see before.
“I went through every photograph in the collection and tried to pick works that had not been exhibited in the eight years I have been here,” he said. “I also wanted to include some of the lesser-known works by the ‘blue-chip’ photographers” like William Eggleston and Sally Mann.
As a result, visitors to “Into the Light” will have a rare opportunity to acquaint themselves with some of the previously hidden masterpieces of the Ogden’s photography collection.
McCabe particularly recommends that visitors look for a rare black-and-white William Eggleston self-portrait from 1968, created before he became the acknowledged master of color photography.
Other highlights include Bruce Davidson’s “Child on the front porch playing with her doll baby” (1962) and “Panoramic View of the Paw-Paw Bends,” a triptych landscape by Franz Jantzen.
While the technology of photography has changed enormously in 100 years or so covered by “Into the Light” — from paper and light-sensitive chemicals to the pixels on our computer screens — McCabe said one of the characteristics of Southern photography has remained constant: its sense of place and each artist’s reverence for the land, culture and people of the region.
The works in “Into the Light” can certainly be viewed in the greater context of American photography as a whole. But they are, to the last example, Southern to the core.