“Above all, life for a photographer cannot be a matter of indifference. ... It is important to see what is invisible to others ...”

Robert Frank

By BILL THOMPSON

Special to The Post and Courier

— There are many cradles of photography, no one locale owning title to its origins and growth as tool or art form.

Yet one may argue that this storied city, oft called the most foreign city in America, is as central to the history and development of American photography as any in the land.

It has been said that, in company with literature, photography was the South’s chief contribution to 20th-century art, having evolved from early portrait and landscape images to the unalloyed documentary approach of the Great Depression and on into Modernism.

Southern photography may claim some of the most renowned names in the field, among them E.J. Belloqc, Sally Mann, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, William Eggleston, Clarence John Laughlin, Birney Imes, William Christenberry and that darling of Southern letters, Eudora Welty, whose sensibilities were equally attuned to the power of the image.

“These and other photographers’ influence on the medium extends beyond regional boundaries, affecting and influencing the themes, subject matter and aesthetic of the photographic arts worldwide,” reads the legend from “Photography at NOMA,” a current exhibit at the New Orleans Museum of Art exploring the museum’s 10,000-work collection.

And it is no less true of the photographers, like Laughlin, who found inspiration in The Big Easy or even called it home. While the legacy of photography in New Orleans is in many ways not representative of the South in general, one motif is shared: a palpable sense of place.

With images of New Orleans as its connecting thread, the exhibit, one of several notable collections on view at this time, features photographs from 1843 to the present, demonstrating the city’s role in the history of photography through the work of such luminaries as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Edward Weston, Robert Mapplethorpe, William Fox Talbot, Andre Kertesz and Robert Frank, as well as by anonymous photographers.

Why New Orleans?

“I think there are certain things that did converge to make New Orleans an appealing place for photographers to be,” says Russell Lord, curator of photographs at NOMA. “It has a strong and lasting architectural legacy. It’s more than providing interesting architectural features to photograph; it becomes a backdrop for a way of life.”

Light, climate, history, people. All contribute to the visual feast.

“I think the kind of architecture that exists here affects the way light filters into the city. I think the architecture forces people to move through the city in different ways,” Lord says. “Then there’s New Orleans’ climate, its cultural heritage, its blend of ethnicity. This all creates a unique identity that makes it a place where strange things happen on a regular basis. And it’s in a visual way, too, that strange things happen.”

Certainly, there are other cities as attractive, as romantic. Paris or New York, for example, both of which command strong identification within our cultural imagination, Lord says. “But New Orleans, despite being so much smaller, has just as strong a presence in our imagination.”

For some, the magic of “The City that Care Forgot” is best revealed in imagery.

Noted photographer and native son Joshua Mann Pailet founded A Gallery for Fine Photography here in 1973, establishing a venue to collect, showcase and sell 19th- and 20th-century pictures of artistic and documentary merit. His gallery on Chartres Street in the French Quarter is among the most distinctive and impressive one may find anywhere, housing original work by Cartier-Bresson, Ansel Adams, Diane Arbus, Yousuf Karsh, Helmut Newton, Edward Steichen, Josephine Sacabo, Fox Talbot, Alfred Stieglitz, Herman Leonard and many others.

“I’m growing very strongly in the belief that New Orleans has served as a cradle of photography,” Pailet says. “Early on, when New Orleans was booming right before the Civil War, it had some of the first portrait studios in the country. It is remarkable all of the fine photographers who came through here, much like the many writers who came to the city.”

And past connects to present.

“When you get to the 20th century, you realize what an inspiration New Orleans has been. Now it is reaching the point where people can step back and say this is a major hot spot of photography. There is something going on right now, and there is a continuum from the very beginning of photography here.”

Pailet, born in New Orleans in 1950 and raised in Baton Rouge, has played an integral role in the support and promotion of photography for many years, producing as many as 10 special exhibitions a year at his own gallery while being intimately involved with other projects. It is a measure of his contributions, monetary and otherwise, that NOMA introduced its A. Charlotte Mann and Joshua Mann Pailet Gallery in November, honoring Pailet and his mother.

“I admire the way Russell Lord has curated his collection at the museum and helped bring this continuum to life at NOMA and the other institutions like mine,” says Pailet, currently at work on several personal book projects, including a retrospective on his 40 years in the field in the U.S. and abroad.

“The creative community in New Orleans is in a renaissance and attracting very interesting people and events. It’s like a fire has been lit under it. Photography is just vibrant, and I’m pleased to have a gallery that shows this contemporary vigor as well as the foundation of the classics.”

300th anniversary

A second major project in which Pailet is engaged involves the observance of New Orleans’s 300th anniversary in 2018. He’s in the darkroom daily, busily editing and printing images he took of the city over that same 40-year span.

As a dealer, Pailet collects photography with one guiding principal: the work first must move him.

“I’ve always been driven by knowing the history of the fine photography field,” he says. “After that, it’s by reacting to those images you see and fall in love with. Theme for me is a factor in my taste. I generally like documentary photography. But I also admire contemporary as well. Those tastes change and refine. I don’t want something that has already been done.”

There are more than 3,500 photos for sale at Pailet’s gallery, not least his own, which grace the second floor. His work also has been displayed at such institutions as the Smithsonian, Library of Congress and the Polk Museum of Art, as well as being owned by private collectors.

“Everything here is for sale at any given time. When I sell a piece by a legend like Ansel Adams, I replace it. I like to anchor the gallery with the major masters, especially on the first floor.”

Miraculously, Pailet’s collection was spared the wrath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, though he chose not to evacuate the Quarter, remaining to ride out the storm and document its initial impact and aftermath over the weeks that followed.

For its part, NOMA began collecting photographs seriously in the early 1970s when photography was not so commonplace on the walls of art museums. Today, it boasts one of the nation’s most distinguished collections, handsomely augmenting its 40,000-object collections of French and American art, glass, Central American, African and Japanese works, and extensive outdoor sculpture garden.

“Photography at NOMA” is an arresting visual chronicle.

“New Orleans did become a place where photographers, even from abroad, felt compelled to visit,” says Lord. “One other key component that can be underestimated is that there aren’t that many cities in the U.S. where photography arrived almost immediately after its invention. New Orleans was one of those places. Photography was known of here as early as 1839, along with New York, Philadelphia and Boston.

“And what all that meant was that from the very beginning, this community embraced photography, and whenever you have that kind of auspicious beginning, you tend to hold onto it. We embrace photography as part of our identity.”

Lord says that because the city is so unique, photographers who hail from here don’t often speak for the South, though works often appear in exhibitions broadly about the region.

“New Orleans has a palpable sense of history and a palpable sense of death,” Lord adds. “It’s a city that’s very old — in American terms — and has sustained remnants of its architectural legacy. Because of that, a lot of New Orleans photography has a sense of that and a sense of the past.

“Death is a very visible presence in the city, the way that people use it as an occasion to think of joyous things and to regard the continuity of life. Here, death is just a part of life. The above-ground cemeteries are a constant reminder. Life in a lot of New Orleans has a surreal bent and a sense of nostalgia.”

As any devotee will tell you, its photography also offers lagniappe (“a little extra”), every bit as evident a local custom as that little something extra you’re served with a plate of food.

Bill Thompson is a writer and book reviewer based in Charleston.