“It’s going to surprise a lot of people,” says Russell Lord, the Freeman Family Curator of Photographs at the New Orleans Museum of Art, referring to the scope of the museum’s collection. It was something of a surprise to Lord himself, who took the post last year and is currently knee-deep in an exhibition scheduled for next fall that will explore the history of the collection.
“Most people don’t realize that the collection was largely assembled between 1970 and 1985 when NOMA amassed almost 5,000 photographs. It was able to bring in images that any museum would be happy to have.” These include strong holdings in European modernism, canonical 20th-century photography and Farm Security Administration photographs. Lord had to hit the ground running when he came on board, and his first show was up on the walls two-and-a-half months after he started. What is a Photograph? presented a wide variety of photographic media, from daguerreotypes and paper negatives to digital prints. “The exhibition was inspired by contemporary debates about the death of photography,” he says. “But I argue that photography is an ever-evolving field of visual image-making.”
Lord has evolved as well, from a student of 18th-century French painting at James Madison University to a specialist in historical and contemporary photography. Lord, who grew up in Massachusetts, credits his parents (his father worked with water-treatment chemicals; his mother is a librarian) with introducing him to a wide variety of things cultural. “But I was always the last one out of the museum,” he says, “They were always telling me it was time to leave.”
After graduation, Lord took a job in the Prints, Drawings and Photographs Department of the Yale University Art Gallery, where Suzanne Boorsch and Jock Reynolds were both interested in photography. “Reynolds was acquiring a huge number of 20th-century photographs, and he needed someone to shepherd those works into the collection,” says Lord. “That turned out to be me.” While at Yale, Lord helped organize exhibitions by Emmet Gowin, Lewis Baltz, and Robert Adams.
But he hadn’t lost his taste for the art of an earlier era, and he enrolled in a Ph.D. program at CUNY; he hopes to finish his dissertation, “Hybridity and Reproduction in Early Photography,” next year. His interest in early photography also led to a stint at Hans P. Kraus Jr. (where he designed the re-creation of Stieglitz’s Little Galleries of the Photo Secession at the 2009 Winter Antiques Show). A Jane and Morgan Whitney Fellowship at the Met followed, where he worked with Malcolm Daniel on the Stieglitz, Steichen, Strand exhibition.
He left the Met for NOMA in part because he was drawn to New Orleans. “The city has such a wonderful history in photography and a lot of people really support and believe in it,” he says, adding, “New Orleans has always had an interesting art scene, but my sense is that post-Katrina, the arts community is getting bigger, better, and stronger than it has ever been.”