Weekly Wire
Gambit Weekly Documents from the Dream State

By D. Eric Bookhardt

JULY 28, 1997:  Perhaps because they are predictable, appearing on a daily or weekly basis, newspapers tend to blend into the background of our ordinary, everyday life. Like cars navigating haphazardly along the city streets, their stories appear as incessant rivulets of random data, in columns of type flowing between coffee stains, pastry crumbs and advertisements on newsprint.

The information contained in this tidal surge of words is revised on a regular basis, but the accompanying photographs can take on a life of their own. It is one of the paradoxes of the photographic medium that nothing seems more factual than a photo at the time it was made, yet even ordinary photos over the years take on a curious atmosphere. What were once views of ordinary people in their everyday reality can eventually, over decades, evolve into something much more quaint, peculiar or bizarre.

Our ancestors were really tripping out -- or so it seemed when, as kids, we looked at pictures of parents or grandparents in their youthful prime. Similarly, See All About It, NOMA's new show from The Times-Picayune's photo morgue, represents a random view of the life of the city over the past century or so. And because these images were born in the adrenaline-charged hands of news photographers, their time-induced, otherworldly aura can at times be pronounced. So what we see is an occasionally surreal look at local history, and, if the subjects are sometimes familiar or nostalgic, the photos are frequently disorienting nonetheless. Excerpts of text and captions only enhance this effect.

Among the surrealist masterpieces are photos like Picture of Actress Lies on Rear Seat of Auto (1967), an interior view of the car where Jayne Mansfield died in a violent accident (she was rumored to have been decapitated) near the Rigolets. Amid the glass shards and ruined upholstery are scattered photos of Mansfield looking exaggeratedly glamorous as usual. The accompanying text notes that her three children were injured but "not seriously."

If Jayne Mansfield's death car is suggestive of Andy Warhol's car crash graphics of similar vintage, a 1959 photo of stripper Blaze Starr looking wide-eyed and pouty evokes Mansfield in her prime. Starr was the girlfriend of then-Gov. Earl Long, who happened to be married at the time. According to the text, "Starr said that she would marry in June a man who is now married ... but would not identify her fiance." A small adjacent photo of Uncle Earl beaming under a white hat left no doubt as to his identity.

Beatles Just Too Much for Fans, a view of City Park Stadium in September, 1964, reveals a gaggle of Beatles fans collapsing in fits of hysteria as a stern-faced older woman tries to drag a limp girl to her feet. The text described the collapsed fans as "in a state of ecstasy," noting that police "administered spirits of ammonia to more than 200 people during the performance." This, and President Kennedy Arrives at Airport, a shot of JFK in his limo amid the usual shark pack of G-men, almost could have been Anywhere USA. Almost, but not quite. Close scrutiny reveals the gleaming ivory dome, pencil-thin moustache and white linen suit of then-Mayor Victor H. Schiro imparting to JFK's limo a bit of the exotic tropical ambience of an old Humphrey Bogart movie. It is, in fact, this pervasive aura of earthy theatricality that gives this exhibit its unique look, in contrast to similar news photo archive shows in places like Louisville or California.

A shot of three sisters of Charity fishing on the seawall on a windy day offers further evidence of this aesthetic. Similar seawalls and similar nuns must surely have existed elsewhere in the country, but this view is instantly, recognizably New Orleans. Something about the tone of the place, the light, the overall vibe. It is a mystery, perhaps, but the sense of place is unmistakably evident. The same might be said of Joyous Citizens Hail Surrender, a view of a spontaneous, flag-waving street parade on St. Roch Avenue celebrating the end of World War II. The sentiments were no doubt universal, but a mere glance tells us that these white folks doing what looks suspiciously like a secondline just had to be Orleanians. It's that look again. (Like, you know these folks had to have crab nets in their garage.)

While some photos convey a strong sense of place without even trying, others defeat their purposes by appearing blatantly retouched. This was usually done to make them easier to "read" on newsprint, but it also reminds us of how relative, or contextual, the whole process really is. In fact, many pictures look more at home in the accompanying catalog and appear strangely naked out of context. But then, every picture tells a story -- and there were 10,000 stories in the Naked City. This is a show that informs and entertains by revealing at least a few of them in the raw.

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