Ogden brings more of its epic Southern photo collection into the light

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art’s knockout survey of its extensive photography collection, “Into The Light,” is back for another round.

The first part of the exhibition, which opened last summer, presented a mix of world-class works by some of the most important artists in the history of the medium with work by a variety of up-and-coming Southern photographers.

But the story told by the Ogden’s collection was too big to be confined to just one show. So “Into the Light” continues with Part 2 opening at the museum this week. The show opens Thursday, March 20.

“There are almost 1,400 photographic works in our collection,” explained Ogden Museum Curator of Photography Richard McCabe, “and about half of them have never been exhibited before, or have been exhibited only rarely. So expanding the show into two parts made sense from a practical perspective.”

With approximately 50 works by more than two dozen photographers, the exhibition further showcases the Ogden’s rich photographic holdings and marks yet another highlight in what is turning out to be an epic year for photography in New Orleans.

McCabe says that the title “Into the Light” refers to the process by which the photographs came to be exhibited. “Putting together the show literally involved bringing these photographs ‘into the light’ for the first time in many years,” he said. “I’ve been at the Ogden for eight years, and going through the vault to find these photographs was sort of a personal voyage of discovery for me as, well.”

As the first part of the exhibition made evident, the history of photography in the South is the history of photography in the United States in general. But a look at many of the photographs in the second part of “Into the Light” underscores several prominent themes common to Southern photography in particular.

One theme is the identifiably Southern sense of place explored in many photographs in the Ogden’s collection.

Take the earliest photograph in “Into the Light”: an 1866 view of Nashville by George Bernard, a photographer who traveled with General Sherman’s troops during the Civil War.

The image shows a distinctly Southern location during a decisive moment in American history and, thus, functions as both a historical document as well as an important example of 19th century landscape photography.

Similarly, Walker Evans’ haunting 1935 photograph of Uncle Sam plantation in Convent, La., is both a visual record of one of the lost architectural masterpieces of the Old South as well as a meditation on the then-rapidly disappearing reminders of Louisiana’s troubled antebellum past. (The plantation was demolished by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers during the construction of a new river levee in 1940.)

Photographs by other masters of the medium, including Marion Post Wolcott and Elemore Morgan Sr., also focus on locations in Louisiana and other places throughout the South.

Another common thread that runs through “Into the Light” are the portraits of uniquely Southern subjects. George Dureau’s stark and sensual photographs of drifters and hustlers recall a practically extinct French Quarter demimonde while they challenge and expand conventional ideals of male beauty.

And prominent photography star Alec Soth, who has photographed people all over the United States in locales including state fairs and bars, is represented in the exhibition with a 2002 portrait of a preacher in Baton Rouge.

McCabe also points to other highlights of the show including a group of previously unexhibited photographs by Shelby Lee Adams and a gorgeous nocturnal trainscape by O. Winston Link, which will be mixed in with what he calls some of the “tried and true” favorites from the Ogden collection by artists including Birney Imes and Eudora Welty.

But as with the first installment of the show, it’s the chance to experience some of the museum’s lesser-known works that is the real draw of “Into the Light.”

“It’s been a real pleasure to find these photographs in our collection and share them,” said McCabe. “There are a lot of unsung gems.”

“And there might even be a third show in the works,” he said. “There’s just that much great stuff.”