New Orleans Museum of Art showcases its photo collection

In a new exhibition of photography at the New Orleans Musuem of Art, an enigmatic masked nude from E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville brothel portraits is exhibited next to a rare original glass plate negative depicting the artist’s own bedroom.

The object functions as sort of a magic window into a world that feels both irrevocably distant and immediately familiar to New Orleans viewers.

“Photography at NOMA: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” is a similarly exhilarating glimpse at the museum’s world-class, but seldom seen, collection of photography.

Organized by NOMA Curator of Photography Russell Lord, the show features more than 130 works. Included are some of the most significant and rare examples from the museum’s collection of more than 10,000 photographic objects spanning the history of the medium.

In the early 1970s, scant demand for fine art photographs meant that NOMA could buy photographic works without spending a fortune, relatively speaking, Lord said.

By 1985, a combination of higher prices and a slowdown in government arts grants meant that it was more difficult for items to enter the collection.

The museum continues to acquire significant photographic objects right up to the present day, and Lord says that NOMA’s photography holdings ranks “at least in the top dozen, maybe in the top half dozen” such collections in the United States.

“It’s partly because it hasn’t been shown comprehensively since 1978 that more people aren’t aware of that fact,” he added.

“Photography at NOMA” accomplishes more than to showcase NOMA’s splendid collection. Lord says it’s also intended to bring focus on New Orleans as an “instrumental locale” in the history of photography.

In addition to Bellocq, other formative artists are represented in the show by photographs taken in New Orleans and its environs.

Clarence John Laughlin’s “Broken Staircase” becomes a surrealist meditation on Louisiana’s plantation past, while another staircase image, a sensuously atmospheric shot inside the notorious LaLaurie Mansion in the French Quarter by 20th century photography’s enfant terrible Robert Mapplethorpe, might be of special interest to those more familiar with the artist’s nudes and flower studies (not to mention “American Horror Story” fans).

Some of the most affecting moments in the show come from lesser-known artists.

A hauntingly detailed portrait of an anonymous free man of color by a Camp Street studio photographer named Felix Moissenet stares mutely at us across a span of over 150 years, yet communicates a lived experience more fully than any other type of art ever could.

In another gallery, a portrait by Marta Kuhn-Weber is similarly startling in its immediacy: The anonymous young woman with the dramatic makeup and bohemian garb almost could have been photographed in Bywater last month instead of in Berlin almost a century ago.

For all of its New Orleans-inflected moments, however, “Photography at NOMA” examines photography in a global context and across a time frame that extends from photography’s early days in the 1840s through the mid-1980s.

Lord made the deliberate choice to arrange the works in a non-chronological order. Instead, groups of objects are displayed alongside each other to highlight common themes or “chapters” in the history of photography.

“There are photos in the exhibition that ‘speak’ to each other,” said Lord, “and many of the objects pose questions that seem crucial.”

He hopes the viewer will engage in that dialogue when visiting “Photography at NOMA.”

“I’d like this to be a space for people both to look at and to learn how to look at photographs,” he said. “There’s so much to see here.”