The secret life of old New Orleans

In Philadelphia, an exhibition of historic photos of the Big Easy is being viewed in a new light after Katrina.

An art exhibition rarely seems, as the television series "Law and Order" boasts, "ripped from the headlines." But a display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art until April 30 resonates eerily with recent news photos. The show, entitled "The Secret Life of Buildings: Photographs by Clarence John Laughlin," displays images of ghostly ruins, the remnants of once-proud homes in New Orleans and southern Louisiana. The images, from more than a half-century ago, portray long-vanished mansions but evoke the current, devastated landscape after last summer's hurricanes.

For many visitors the exhibition has taken on an additional meaning: It's a stark reminder of the city's unique heritage.

"It makes the essence of the place really come alive," says Elizabeth Emsweller, a college student at the University of Hawaii who recently visited the museum. "Perhaps if we remember the history and life of New Orleans, the city can move past the destruction. Now it's at the decay cycle, but it can come back."

Curator Katherine Ware began planning the exhibition eight months before hurricanes Katrina and Rita roared through the Gulf Coast in August and September. "Then," she says, "historic and climatological events intervened," making the exhibition timely. Ms. Ware expresses surprise that visitors specifically interested in architecture have come to the gallery. "People seem really concerned about the loss and want to connect with that," she says.

The response would please Mr. Laughlin (1905-85), a self-taught, New Orleans photographer. His mission was to document and awaken appreciation for the area's distinctive architecture.

"He was, by his own admission, much more a person of the past than of his own time," according to John Lawrence, director of museum programs at the Historic New Orleans Collection, home to Laughlin's archives. When Laughlin took the photographs, many glorious antebellum and Victorian homes were falling to abandonment or the wrecking ball.

"He was concerned with the vanishing of this architectural legacy in Louisiana," Mr. Lawrence says. "Whether the architecture vanishes as a gradual wearing away from neglect or from the cataclysmic event of a storm washing it away with one fell swoop, the result is the same, which his photographs react to."

Laughlin's passion for this heritage is evident in the evocative titles and text he wrote to accompany the photographs. The wholesale destruction in New Orleans makes titles such as "Poem of a Lost Street," "Elegy for the Old South," "Spectre of Ruin," "Grandeur and Ruin," and "Farewell" achingly prescient.

Text linked to the images could come from present-day laments of evacuees. For "Spectre in a Dead Room," a 1953 image of a burned-out interior, with a mysterious figure standing before a charred mantel, Laughlin wrote, "It is a spectre - in this room which seems utterly dead - of the inevitable fate which overcomes houses when human life is completely drained from them."

Post-Katrina photos of the gutted interiors of New Orleans homes wrecked by flood and mildew, stripped down to the studs, evoke this same feeling of a city denuded of its vital culture of joyous music, spicy food, and boisterous, fun-loving people.

"The Elevation of the Dead," a 1947 photo of a vault in New Orleans' St. Louis Cemetery, features, Laughlin wrote, a "stone figure imploring the blind sky." The kneeling figure presages the shattering televised images of stranded people on rooftops begging helicopters to descend and rescue them. In "Poem of New Orleans Skies," a sculpted figure of Hope on an 1872 tomb has her arm broken off, an emblem of fractured dreams.

Laughlin, called "the Edgar Allan Poe of the camera," infuses his work with the macabre. His images are both documentary and surreal, like a gumbo seasoned with splashes of Ken Burns's history and Anne Rice's gothic spookiness. Odd angles capture atmospheric effects of light, shadow, and bizarre reflections.

To suggest layers of memory and past lives beyond our usual perception, he inserted spectral figures. "He was very interested in the invisible, the ephemeral, and the ineffable," says Ware.

The shrouded figures, Lawrence explains, "were a photographic device to indicate that this building is special, that it had a spiritual presence."

The title of the exhibition comes from Laughlin's assertion: "All buildings, all cities that have been greatly lived in, that have been greatly dreamed on, and that extend far through time - have this secret life."

Judging from visitors' reactions, the photographs still quicken the imagination. Sheila Flener, an interior designer from Bowling Green, Ky., says the photographs show "the fabulous architecture of New Orleans. They need to save what they can - to lose that heritage would be tragic. Buildings are our soul."

A group of three suburban ladies intensely scrutinizing each photograph also speak of the area with affection. "We were wondering what's happening with the cemeteries and we're happy someone took pictures of them before it flooded," says one of them, Fern, who volunteers only her first name. About the reconstruction, she muses, "Can they capture its charm or will it look different?"

Laughlin's 1941 photo of Windsor Plantation near Port Gibson, Miss., called "The Enigma," implies an unknown future. Destroyed by fire, all that remains is a roofless slab with fluted columns reaching to the sky, vines sprouting from the cast-iron capitals. Laughlin's comment: "Clouds hang like a question mark over the mystery of the ruins."

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