Note: This piece is part 2 in a series of the brief history of photography in New Orleans. Check out Part 1 for the introduction.
EARLY 20TH CENTURY
During this period, the social progress of Reconstruction waned and Jim Crow laws advanced de jure (of the law) segregation. One of the most prolific photographic works to be created during this time is the Storyville series by E.J. Bellocq, a white Creole and native of the city. Storyville was New Orleans’ legal red light district that existed until 1917. Although the prints were not discovered and made public until the 1970s, the photos themselves were taken around 1912 and provided an intimate look into the lives of sex workers and their patrons in Storyville.
Black photographers were not able to enter the mainstream photography industry through traditional means during this time due to a lack of access to formal training because of segregation. That didn’t stop them from self-educating and telling the stories of themselves and their communities. A.P. Bedou and his mentee Villard Paddio are two of the most well-known Black photographers from this era. Bedou, after shooting a Tuskegee conference in the early 1900s, was hired as Booker T. Washington’s personal photographer and eventually opened his own studio in New Orleans. He was also the official institution photographer of Xavier University, who holds the largest collection of his work to this day. His work was even featured in the wide-circulation newspaper Louisiana Times-Picayune and he even has works from his 70-year career available at the Library of Congress.
The work of Villard Paddio mostly focused on the social and civic lives of Black people in New Orleans, including the burgeoning jazz scene. He is responsible for the Crescent City Pictorial, a small booklet that contained photographs of Black life in New Orleans in the early 1900s. These aren’t names we really hear when talking about photography in New Orleans but their influence is definitely still felt, especially because much of their work is still available in digital form.
Florestine Perrault Bertrand Collins, a Black female photographer, began her training as a preteen and specialized in portraits from her home studio. She was so successful that she was eventually able to purchase commercial property for her studio. She was initially able to gain work as an assistant to white photographers by passing as white. In 1920, she was one of only 101 Black female photographers listed on the United States census. Despite advancements and access to education, Black women still only make up a very small percentage of photographers around the country.
Amongst these photographers also stands a New Orleans Civil Rights Movement legend who is still alive today. Ronnie Moore, a New Orleans native, worked on the frontlines of the movement from the 1960s into the 1970s and is still active in anti-mass incarceration work today. As a student at Southern University, he was expelled with 20 other students for trying to integrate lunch counters. In total, he was arrested 15 times and spent 57 days in solitary confinement. As a field secretary for the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), he was up close and personal with much of the work done in Louisiana for much of the movement. His photos help tell the story of the movement as it shifted from direct action and violent clashes with authorities in the 1960s, to internal work within the Black community toward economic determinism. His photos are available in the Amistad Research Center’s collections.
Next week, I’ll be profiling photographers who made their mark as New Orleans recovered from the tumultuous Civil Rights Era and approached the new century.