Steven Maklansky, director of curatorial services at the Louisiana State Museum, notes that, “among all the other cultural traditions that people of African descent had to assimilate was the desire to have one’s portrait made. The obsession with individual identity is an important port of the western visual arts tradition but that’s not necessarily the case on the African continent.” He continues, “An important part of African art is the mask – something that hides individual identity.”
The urge to have one’s portrait made caught on quickly here: There is a long tradition of photography in New Orleans’ black community.
One of the earliest – and possibly the first – photographer in New Orleans was a free man of color, Jules Lion. Lion, a classically trained artist and New Orleans engraver, was probably in Paris in 1839 when Jules Daguerre’s daguerreotype process was revealed and rapidly spread. (The French government made sure that the inventor allowed everyone to use this process freely.) Although examples of Lion’s engraving exist (one is at the Historic New Orleans Collection) “no absolutely verifiable Lion daguerreotypes have been discovered,” says Maklansky, who adds that not all artists put their names on their work. (Lester Sullivan, archivist at Xavier University, admits to once seeing a “supposed self-portrait with ‘Lion’ scratched on the back.”)
Lion, and other early black photographers, may have had subjects of any race. However, early photographic images of blacks have special value: “A generic tintype of a white person from 1875 might be worth $20: one of someone with a darker skin color would be worth twice that,” Maklansky says.
In the 20th century, one black New Orleans woman had a long career as a photographer. Florestine Perrault Bertrand Collins, born in 1895, was one of only 101 black female photographers in the 1920 U.S. Census. Collins was barely a teenager when she began learning her trade – she found work as an assistant to white photographers while not revealing her own racial heritage. After her first marriage she opened a studio in the family home at 2328 St. Peter St., but later moved to a commercial location at 620 North Claiborne Ave. She specialized in portraits – young ladies looking their best in their finest clothes, with the occasional fern or subtle drapery (one photo, in drapery, angered the young lady’s father who thought it too revealing.)
In an article on . Collins in Louisiana History, historian Arthé Anthony quoted former mayor Sidney Barthelemy’s mother; when she first left her home with a new baby she made two stops: “ the church for baptism, and the photographer.” First Communion pictures, family portraits, brides in their gowns: Collins captured special moments in life, with her studio as the setting. Male African American photographers found their settings in the city itself.
Arthur P. Bedou, born in 1882, was a well-known photographer throughout his long career (he died in 1966). In 1914 he advertised his services, saying that photographs “ are always especially treasured and looked upon with tenderness as constant reminders of happy days.” Besides taking pictures, Bedou experimented with his own unique chemistry and developing techniques. He was known for his portraits and landscapes but also served as an institutional photographer for colleges. Because he was the official photographer for Xavier University, the school holds the largest collection of Bedou’s work says archivist Sullivan.
According to Sullivan, “Bedou was hired to be Booker T. Washington’s traveling photographer in the last speaking engagements he had all throughout the south.” Xavier today holds many of those pictures.
The Civil Rights movement, jazz musicians, social organizations’ events: black photographers were there to record it all. One interesting man behind the camera was Marion J. Porter. He operated Porter’s Photo News Service and much of his work appeared in Louisiana Weekly.
According to his 1983 obituary in Louisiana Weekly, Porter was born in Donaldsonville, where his father was a druggist. He grew up in New Orleans and attended Straight College (now Dillard University.) He served in the U.S. Army in World War II and saw action in the “Battle of the Bulge.” His photographs appeared in Louisiana Weekly, Data Weekly, Jet and Ebony magazines and the Black Enterprise newspaper.
Porter took news photographs and portraits. He recorded Civil Rights actions and baseball games. Some of the personages he caught on camera included President John F. Kennedy, Emperor Haile Selassie, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington. Lionel Hampton, Justice Thurgood Marshall and Joe Louis. He took pictures for Dillard University, the Prince Hall Masons Grand Lodge of Louisiana and the Original Illinois Club.
“With his camera he recorded the fullness and the rich cultural flavor of New Orleans’ black community,” the Louisiana Weekly editorial writer says. “Terrible events and happy pageantry were all captured in light and shadow within the frame of his camera lens.”
Porter’s work, along with that of many other African American photographers, was collected into a show at the Ashé Cultural Center on Oretha Castle Haley Street. The show, “The Ties That Bind: Making Family New Orleans Style,” was a photo-exhibit funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation (a published volume covering the show is available at the cente..)
Jeffrey Cook, artist in residence at the Center, called Porter “a mentor to so many of our African American photographers.” Harold Baquet and Eric Waters are just two of the camera artists chronicling African American life in the city. “For every ward in the city there was a photographer,” Cook says.
Besides “Ties That Bind,” several major shows of African American photography have been on view here. Maklansky, while at the New Orleans Museum of Art, had put together an exhibit, “Asserting Equality: a Photograph Legacy of African American Identity” from works in the NOMA collection. Recently, “Let Your Motto Be Resistance: African American Portraits,” celebrated African American political and cultural figures. Organized by the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Portrait Gallery, it was displayed here at the Louisiana State Museum’s Old Mint building on Esplanade Avenue. In addition, the New Orleans Photo Alliance and the Louisiana State Museum have sponsored a program entitled “Local Take: African American Portraiture in Louisiana.”
Coming this summer is an exhibit on the Sisters of the Holy Family, New Orleans’ own order of black nuns, which will be on display at the New Orleans African American Museum in Tremé. Works by Arthur Bedou, the sisters’ photographer, will be included.
From the very beginnings of the art form, New Orleans’ blacks, both men and women, have found a way to use the camera to both express themselves creatively and to record the lives of their fellow New Orleanians with art and industry, leaving us a record of the past, with their special imprint on it. All of them deserve our thanks.