Some of earliest U.S. landscape photos coming to New Orleans

Monday, September 25, 2017
A coated salt print by Jay Dearborn Edwards shows New Orleans cotton wharves sometime between 1858 and 1861. It is among 19th-century landscape photographs to be shown at the New Orleans Museum of Art.
New Orleans Museum of Art via AP

NEW ORLEANS -- Some of the oldest daguerreotypes and photographs of U.S. landscapes are about to go on display in New Orleans, as part of the first exhibit and study of such landscapes made east of the Mississippi River.

Photographs of vast, unspoiled Western vistas are well known, many of them from federal land surveys after the Civil War. Photography had had a while to develop by then -- "people could take cameras with them into the West," said Russell Lord, curator of photography at the New Orleans Museum of Art .

But, he said, "in many ways, when photography comes to the East, people have reshaped the land, and people photograph that process."

And by the end of the century, photographers were taking note of industry's devastation and pushing for preservation of what wilderness remained.

"East of the Mississippi: Nineteenth-Century American Landscape Photography," which debuted with four months at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, will run from Oct. 6 to Jan. 7 at the New Orleans Museum of Art -- its only other stop. About 62,000 people saw it in Washington.

"Some of the oldest known photographs in this country are in this exhibit, and many are being shown for the first time ever -- and probably the only time in our lives, because the material is fragile and light-sensitive," said Lord, who worked on the exhibit with creator Diane Waggonner, curator of 19th-century photography at the National Gallery.

The oldest include a 1939 daguerreotype of Newburyport, Massachusetts, by Boston-area physician Henry Coit Perkins, and -- lent by the library of Newcastle University in England -- two shots of Niagara Falls taken in 1840 by English scientist Hugh Lee Pattinson.

France had made Louis Daguerre's process of fixing images on polished silver a gift to the world in August 1939, and articles about it arrived in this country that September. U.S. scientists and others began experimenting almost immediately, Waggonner wrote in the exhibit's 270-page catalog.

Experiments with paper-based photography had reached the U.S. a few months earlier than daguerreotype, starting with salt prints, but it wasn't until the 1850s newer paper processes took over the field.

The earliest landscapes appear to be essentially whatever was in the experimenters' neighborhood. Waggonner said she expected to find mostly scenic views, such as those of Niagara and the White and Adirondack mountains -- the sort of pictures painted by landscape artists of the time.

She found such photographs. "But at the same time, what photographers were so interested in was the way the land and landscape were being developed -- industrialization, mining, the railroads," she said.

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