You Are Here

A brief history of photography and place

By New Orleans Museum of Art

Brian Piper, Assistant Curator of Photographs, New Orleans Museum of Art

Florida Boardwalk Photographer (1944) by Walker EvansNew Orleans Museum of Art


"You Are Here" explores photographs of place, photographs in place, and photographs about place, leading us to think more deeply about how photography mediates our experience of the world. This exhibition embraces photography’s success as a faithful record of our environs, but also questions the medium’s effectiveness in depicting and sharing fragments of that world. Drawn exclusively from NOMA’s permanent collection, this exhibition traces a history of photography and asks how any one photograph—a flat, portable, and reproducible representation—can continue to stand in for something as singular, experiential, and fixed in location as the place that it endeavors to represent. The following works challenge the belief that photographs provide an objective representation of our surroundings, offering examples of how different photographic forms can distort or change our understanding of the places represented in those pictures. Further, these photographs illustrate how photographers can manipulate what we know (or what we think we know) through the choices they make. 

You Are Here installation (view 06) (2019) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

The exhibition begins in the Nineteenth Century, and with the promise photography offered to depict places near and far with new accuracy—while also demonstrating how these kinds of photographs often provided a limited rendering of the places they claimed to document. 

Ceylon (1852-1854) by Anna AtkinsNew Orleans Museum of Art

Anna Atkins made this unique camera-less photograph by placing plants directly on chemically treated paper and exposing the combination to sunlight, creating a negative image of the ferns.

The cyanotype process gave Atkins, a trained botanist, a way to document plants from Great Britain and British colonies like Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) with precise detail.

Without leaving England, Atkins made all of her prints using specimens obtained through imperial trade, meaning this photograph was made over 5,000 miles from where the plants grew in Southeast Asia.

What makes this one-of-a-kind object special in this exhibition is that unlike any of the photos that follow this is the only print that was in direct physical contact with the subject it describes, or rather, part of the place it represents. Considering how and why a photograph was made can tell us a great deal about how photographers understood the relationship between their work and their world.

Jerusalem Forteresse de Sion, from "Jerusalem Etude et Reproduction Photographique des monuments de la Ville Sainte Depuis l'epoque Judaique Jusqu'a nos Jours (1856) by Auguste SalzmannNew Orleans Museum of Art

When French archaeologist Félicien Caignart de Saulcy’s drawings of Jerusalem’s architecture were criticized as inaccurate he hired Auguste Salzmann to make photographs of the same sites.

Salzmann’s photographs, according to de Saulcy, were unassailable since they had been recorded by the most consistent author of all, the sun.

This view is typical of Salzmannn’s work in Jerusalem in that the photographer emphasized the textures of the landscape but rarely included people, making it difficult to gauge scale or depth.

Distant View of the Snowy Summits - South of the Shigri Glacier (circa 1866) by Samuel BourneNew Orleans Museum of Art

Samuel Bourne published accounts of his work in India between 1863 to 1870, including three expeditions through the Himalayas. His writing provides insight into the place-specific qualities of his photographs. For example, Bourne proclaimed the light in India better than that of England when it came to producing a nuanced range of tones, but he struggled to contend with the weather. He regularly spent hours preparing to make a photograph, only for quick-rising storms to block the superlative light. Many of Bourne's photographs, like this one, fit in with European concepts of the sublime and functioned to encourage British colonial exploitation, while his writing portrayed the people of India in an insulting way.

Bourne also told the tale that once, when running short of purified water, he used water from a Himalayan stream to mix new chemicals.

Bourne insisted afterwards that the photo-sensitive chemicals mixed with water recently fallen from the clouds overhead proved superior when rendering those same clouds in his photographs.

The story is pure exaggeration, but Bourne’s continued attention to the particularities of place illustrates how even intangible elements, like differences in light, factor into the photographer’s thinking when trying to represent a place and point toward additional ways by which we might gauge their success in doing so.

Panorama of Pompei (circa 1868) by Adolphe BraunNew Orleans Museum of Art

This panorama by Adolphe Braun is a good example of how cameras shape our ability to see and represent places visually. Braun made landscape photographs using a special pantascopic camera.

Braune's camera used gears to rotate so that the lens would pass across a flat glass plate moving in the opposite direction, exposing just a part of the negative at a time.

The movement of the negative and the lens Braune used gave the landscape the appearance of being concave. If this was the first time you saw Pompeii in 1866, you might assume it had a bowl shape.

New technologies like this represented landscapes in ways that could never be experienced with human eyes, changing the ways that people imagined far-away places.

You Are Here installation (view 05) (2019) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

Beginning with several examples from the nineteenth century, the works in the next gallery

advance into the twentieth century when the limits (or possibilities) of photographic

vision were exploited by photographers who made specific and often aesthetic choices

to shape our understanding of the world. Other works exemplify the importance of photography in showing us places that had been previously inaccessible to many people. 

Scene of Gen. McPhersons Death (1864-1866) by George N. BarnardNew Orleans Museum of Art

In 1864, George Barnard served the United States as a photographer following the forces of William T. Sherman. That year Rebels surprised Union General James B. McPherson near Atlanta, shooting him off of his horse and killing him. In 1866 Barnard returned South taking pictures photographs for a volume about Sherman's campaign, which included this picture.

No marker existed to note McPherson's death. Barnard arranged the bones, cannonball, and some of the brush seen here into a small landscape of mourning and imbue this place with meaning.

While McPherson purportedly died near the thick tangle of trees pictured here, other renderings based on accounts look quite different. Some describe, for instance, a small trail for travelers.

This photo's success, as both record and memorial, depends on our belief that photographs tell the truth and that we are seeing the real site of McPherson's death rather than merely wilderness.

Towing the Reed (1886) by Peter Henry EmersonNew Orleans Museum of Art

Peter Henry Emerson was an early advocate for photography’s status as a fine art, as opposed to its utilitarian purpose of supplying mechanically-produced documents.

Emerson promoted a naturalistic style and avoided retouching his photos. He presented people as he found them, but still required them to pause as he arranged the scene and made his exposure.

Emerson also favored beautiful printing methods, as in this platinum print, that idealized and romanticized life in East Anglia. He published over a dozen books about the region.

Untitled (Off Pirate's Alley, New Orleans) (circa 1925) by Arnold GentheNew Orleans Museum of Art

Photographers can shape our understanding of a place by controlling what they include within the frame. For instance, when Arnold Genthe traveled to New Orleans in the 1920s he intended to make charming views of a quaint and antiquated French Quarter.

When he arrived, however, he found an already modernized city crisscrossed by wires, streetcar, tracks, sewer lines and fire hydrants.

Genthe compensated by trying to exclude those elements associated with modern life from his photos, focusing on sultry courtyards and dark alleyways, to create a romanticized vision of New Orleans.

Genthe gathered rich platinum prints of the Vieux Carre that he made in his typically romantic, pictorialist style and published them in 1926 under the title "Impressions of Old New Orleans."

Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot (circa 1888, printed 1941) by Jacob RiisNew Orleans Museum of Art

In the 1880s, journalist Jacob Riis sought to call greater public attention to the extreme poverty facing immigrants living in tenements on the Lower East Side of New York.

When flash-powder photography was invented around around 1887 Riis embraced the technology as a means to bring light, both literally and figuratively, into dark and overcrowded living spaces.

The flash powder burned so bright that the subjects had to keep their eyes closed.

Riis went on a speaking tour with his photos to show elite and middle class Americans the reality of life in the tenements, a place most had never seen.

The Hague (1930, printed later) by Erich SalomonNew Orleans Museum of Art

Other photographs opened places and spaces previously reserved for the rich and powerful. Dubbed the “King of the Indiscrete,” Erich Salomon was one of the first investigative photojournalists.

He used small cameras, including an Ermanox, which could be concealed in his bowler hat to take clandestine photographs of political intrigue.

Salomon took this evocative photograph at 2 A.M., during negotiations over World War I reparations to Germany.

Working throughout Europe before his death during the Holocaust, Salomon offered people around the world a glimpse into backrooms of political power that had previously been accessible to only a few.

Untitled, Miami, Florida (1966, printed later) by Gordon ParksNew Orleans Museum of Art

This moving portrait speaks to a different kind of photographic access, and illustrates but one of the ways we give shape to a place. While on assignment for LIFE magazine in 1966, Gordon Parks photographed his friend, prizefighter Muhammad Ali, in group prayer during training in Miami.

This work asks us to consider how Park's access to Ali made this image possible and how its circulation in a national magazine influenced popular understanding of the boxer and humanitarian.

It also reminds us that we make place through community, and it easy to imagine Parks sitting down in this chair after the prayer to eat dinner with Ali.

You Are Here installation (view 01) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

The next gallery in the exhibition turns towards questions of where photographs are both made and seen. Some of the photographs were made in studios that encouraged the subjects to imagine they were someplace else while others were created for other purposes than display in a museum. Other photographs here deliberately play with perspective, and can be purposefully disorienting. How does viewing these photographs in different contexts - in a home, at a museum, and now on the internet - change our understanding of them?  

Aerial View of Trenches (1918, printed later) by Edward J. SteichenNew Orleans Museum of Art

In 1917, Edward Steichen enlisted in the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) and was appointed Chief of the Photographic Section. Steichen’s units pioneered the use of airplanes for photoreconnaissance during World War I. This photograph is part of a series documenting “The Taking of Cantigny, May 28, 1918.”

When viewed from a few paces back, this photograph has almost an abstract quality. But as you zoom in.... can see trenches, foxholes, craters...

...even tanks and ruined buildings that dotted the countryside. Steichen's unit provided valuable reconnaisance, but also documented daily life for US forces serving during WWI.

You Are Here installation (view 02) (2019) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

This wall features what appear to be landscape views. From right to left, it moves from a photo of a stone pueblo by Manuel Alvarez Bravo to highly textural close-cropped works by Michael A. Smith. In the middle, the large Heihachiro Sakai photos presents what looks like a sparsely wooded hillside. Together, these photographs frustrate our ability to cite a specific place by toying with scale and pushing representations from formal towards abstraction.

Looking closely, we can see Sakai’s picture is actually of an elephant’s head masquerading as a landscape! Sakai belonged to the Naniwa Photo Club, a haven for avant-garde photography in 1950s' Japan.

Untitled (portrait of a family in a studio prop boat) (circa 1885) by Unidentified photographerNew Orleans Museum of Art

This portrait shows but one of countless fantastical scenarios that studio photographers offered customers beginning in the Nineteenth Century. On the backdrop, water meets the sky at the horizon.

A facade of lily pads and a fake rowboat help complete the illusion.

And these hats helped the youngsters dress the part.

This family portrait is a tintype, a unique photographic print made directly on lacquered iron. Beginning in the 1860s tintypes became popular because they were very affordable and quickly made.

Formal Portrait of a Family Group (circa 1885) by Alva PearsallNew Orleans Museum of Art

This family photograph would have been more expensive, or at least we are meant to think so. The piano, furniture, wallpaper, paintings, well-apportioned mantle...

... and stereograph viewer are all the markers of middle-class and elite domestic spaces in the 1880s. Closer inspection however reveals that the wallpaper, staircase, fireplace, and even...

...the little dog are fakes. This portrait was taken in the Brooklyn studio of Alva Pearsall, which he marketed as a "Tadema Print," named after the painter known for scenes of luxury.

This unknown family has posed in the Pearsall studio in an imaginary room, with props meant to demonstrate the social standing, or place, they either presently occupied or which they aspired to join.

You Are Here installation (view 03) (2019) by New Orleans Museum of ArtNew Orleans Museum of Art

Finally, the exhibition includes recent and contemporary works by photographers who

explore place more conceptually, raising questions about
what makes a place and whether or not a

photograph can ever fully represent the more intangible
qualities of a place. Other artists, like Carrie Mae Weems (center left here), use the symbolic qualities of a generic place, to explore broader questions about identity and politics. 

Weems' photo here (Untitled (Man and Mirror), 1990) is part of her Kitchen Table series, in which she performed a number of plausible scenarios from the life of an African American woman.

By staging these moments in a place that is generic yet specific—at a kitchen table—Weems can call on all of the political and cultural symbolism of that familiar gathering space in order to explore different themes like family life, gender, sexuality, and racial identity.

Geography Book Pages (1973) (1973; printed 1974) by Emmet GowinNew Orleans Museum of Art

Many of the photographs in this exhibition reflect photographers’ interrogation of ideas about place, without clearly representing a real place, or causing the viewer to be unsure about when and where the photograph was made. To make this picture, Emmet Gowin tore the pages of an illustrated textbook to create a fantasy landscape, and then photographed the results.

Gowin reminds us of how we visualized the world before photography, through painting or illustrations, as well as the use of descriptive text or maps to orient ourselves in the world.

Arranged like a collage, Gowin's landscape includes visions of the sublime, and subjective renderings of people based on colonialist fantasies.

But the black borders of the negative visible at the edges reinforce the fact that we are indeed looking at a photograph.

This photograph encapsulates Gowin’s lifelong exploration of two of the most important means by which we define place: through our human relationships and through our connection to the natural world.

Colored Entrance to Theatre, Tylertown, MS, 2018 (2018) by Rich FrishmanNew Orleans Museum of Art

Richard Frishman seeks out the markers of racial segregation and violence that linger in the American landscape and built environment. Often these examples are hiding in plain sight, but at other times the evidence has been subject to such erasure that it becomes difficult for people to confront the more painful aspects of our past. These photographs can encourage us to consider the political importance of place and consider how photography can help us look.

The light fixture and bricks here are evidence of a doorway that segregated audiences at this theater. African Americans could only enter in a side door and were only permitted in balcony seating.

Frishman works by taking hundreds of high-resolution digital images at a single location over several hours, then layering them together in the computer, almost like a painting.

The result is a hyper-real viewing experience, with more detail and visual information than you could possibly see at one time if you were actually standing outside of the theater.

Frishman's work suggests that a photograph, in the hands of a sensitive observer can provide information and convey the more ethereal, but historically vital qualities of a place.

Acknowledging the centrality of photography in our daily lives, all of the photographs in this exhibition can remind us of photography’s important role in the ways that we assign meaning to place in the real world.

Credits: Story

You Are Here: A Brief History of Photograph and Place is organized by the New Orleans Museum of Art and is sponsored by George and Milly Denegre, Catherine and David Edwards, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the A. Charlotte Mann and Joshua Mann Pailet Endowment.

For a full checklist, please contact the New Orleans Museum of Art

Abbreviated List of Works
(available measurements refer to the printed image)

Walker Evans
(American, 1903–1975)
Florida Boardwalk Photographer, c. 1944
Gelatin silver print
Museum purchase, Women's Volunteer Committee Fund,
© Walker Evans Archive, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Anna Atkins
(British, 1799–1871)
Ceylon, 1852–1854
Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund, 81.385
10 3/16 x 8 in.

Auguste Salzmann
(French, 1824–1872)
Jerusalem Forteresse de Sion, 1856
Salt print
Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund, 79.9
9 1/16 x 12 15/16 in

Adolphe Braun
(French, 1812–1877)
Panorama of Pompei, c. 1868
Carbon print
Museum purchase, Zemurray Foundation Fund, 74.174
8 5/8 x 18 7/16 in.

Samuel Bourne
(British, 1834-1912)
Distant View of the Snowy Summits - South of the Shigri Glacier, 1866
Albumen print,
Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund, 82.114

George N. Barnard
(American, 1819–1902)
Scene of General McPherson’s Death, from Photographic Views of Sherman’s Campaign, 1864-1866
Albumen print
1988 Discretionary Purchase Fund, 88.373.2
10 x 14 1/16 in.

Peter Henry Emerson,
(British, born Cuba, 1856–1936)
Towing the Reed, from Life and Landscape on the Norfolk Broads, 1886
Platinum print
Museum purchase, Jung Enterprises and WVC Funds, 75.3
8 13/16 x 10 3/4 in.

Arnold Genthe,
(American, born Germany, 1869–1942)
Untitled (Off Pirate's Alley, New Orleans), c. 1925
Platinum print
Museum purchase, City of New Orleans Capital Funds, 76.32
13 5/16 x 10 1/4 in.

Jacob Riis
(American, born Denmark, 1849–1914)
Bayard Street Tenement, Five Cents a Spot, c.1888, printed 1941
Gelatin silver print
Gift of Milton Esterow, 99.361
8 x 9 3/4 in.

Erich Salomon
(German, 1886–1944)
The Hague, 1930, printed later
Gelatin silver print
Museum purchase, 73.242.4
© Erich Salomon

Gordon Parks
(American, 1912–2006)
Untitled, Miami, Florida, 1966, printed later
Gelatin silver print
Gift of the Gordon Parks Foundation, 2018.36
20 x 24 in.
© The Gordon Parks Foundation. Photograph by Gordon Parks.

Attributed to Edward J. Steichen
(American, born Luxembourg, 1879-1973)
Aerial View of Trenches, 1918, printed later
Gelatin silver print
Museum purchase, Women's Volunteer Committee Fund and Jung Enterprise Fund, 75.497
11 7/16 x 18 3/4 in.
© 2020 The Estate of Edward Steichen / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

Heihachiro Sakai
(Japanese, b. 1930)
Untitled, c. 1960
Gelatin silver print
Museum purchase, Tina Freeman Fund and funds provided by George and Milly Denegre, 2018.77
© Heihachiro Sakai, Courtesy of the artist and MEM Gallery, Katsuya Ishida

Unidentified Photographer
Untitled (portrait of a family in a studio prop boat), c. 1885
Hand-colored tintype
Gift of an anonymous donor, 2012.80
12.7 x 17.8 cm.

Alva Pearsall,
(American, 1839-1893)
Formal Portrait of a Family Group, c. 1885
Albumen print
Museum purchase, General Acquisitions Fund, 82.170

Unidentified photographer,
Untitled, c. 1900
Gelatin silver print on real photo postcard
Gift of Mrs. Clarence John Laughlin, 86.360.17

Carrie Mae Weems
(American, b. 1953)
Untitled (Man and Mirror) from Kitchen Table Series, 1990
Gelatin silver print,
Promised and partial gift of H. Russell Albright, M.D., 93.558
© Carrie Mae Weems. Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery, New York.

Emmet Gowin
(American, b. 1941)
Geography Pages, 1974
Gelatin silver print
Museum purchase through the National Endowment for the Arts Grant, 75.31
9 5/8 x 7 11/16 in.
© Emmet Gowin

Richard Frishman
(American, b. 1951)
Colored Entrance, Tylertown, Mississippi, 2018
Archival inkjet print
Gift of an anonymous donor, 2019.21
44 x 54 inches
© Richard Frishman

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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