A new book of essays on rediscovered photographs of New Orleans in 1867, written by the curator of architecture and design at the MIT Museum, shows how the city tried to rebuild its economy and retrieve its prestige in the aftermath of war.
Curator Gary Van Zante's book, "New Orleans 1867: Photographs by Theodore Lilienthal" (Merrell) plumbs richly detailed black and white images whose original use was public relations: Lilienthal was hired to take photographs that would put a resilient, commercially active face on New Orleans during Reconstruction.
"In the process, Lilienthal created one of the most important photographic surveys of the century and one of the best visual documents we have of city building in the Civil War era," Van Zante said in an interview at MIT.
Leaders of the bankrupt city government wanted commerce more than art: They hoped Lilienthal's images of solid buildings and bustling businesses would encourage foreign investment and invite immigrant labor to rebuild New Orleans.
"The photographs are a kind of rhetoric of triumph over the devastation of war and an expression of the city's aspirations to 'recover lost fortunes and advantages,' as boosters put it. They were a pretentious image to present to the world, considering the actual condition of the city," Van Zante said.
Publicly displayed at the Exposition of 1867 in Paris, Lilienthal's 126 large exhibition photographs were presented to Emperor Napoleon III and stored in Switzerland. Memory of Lilienthal's work was lost until Van Zante, then head of the architectural collection at Tulane University, identified the photographs and organized an exhibition of them in 2000. He began work on the book the following year.
Van Zante describes the Lilienthal project as a forensic adventure, with the photos providing evidence of lost streets and buildings of the 19th century port city. Van Zante used 19th and 21st century technologies--both 150-year-old maps and documents, and digital tools--to dig for historic details.
Sometimes, these paid handsomely: A half-obscured ship in dry dock turned out to be a famous Confederate blockade-runner, put to commercial use. A vast, domed building under construction at the edge of the city turned out to be the Marine Hospital, New Orleans' version of Boston's Big Dig.
"The iron building, insulated with rammed earth, was thought to be lighter and therefore better suited to swampy local conditions, as well as fireproof. The proposal was innovative but the technology was costly, a sinkhole of federal money. Never completed, eventually demolished, the hospital was one of the most advanced buildings of its time, but it has been forgotten today," he said.
The photos also gratified Van Zante's interest in the history of paving materials: New Orleans was an early adopter of granite paving blocks, as Lilienthal's photos confirm. Even those smooth, wagon-friendly streets formed part of the public relations campaign to invite foreign investors and labor, according to Van Zante.
Beyond promoting New Orleans' image abroad, Van Zante said, Lilienthal's campaign buoyed New Orleanians' self-image after four long years of war and demonstrated the city's resiliency.
But presenting New Orleans as unchanged by the war, as able to retrieve its antebellum status, has a downside, too, Van Zante said.
"Much as Reconstruction New Orleans aspired to return to the commercial supremacy the city had enjoyed before the war, but would never recover, there is a risk that post-Katrina New Orleans is relying too heavily on the past in shaping its future," Van Zante said. "If sites of urban destruction or degradation often become sites of innovation, this is an opportunity for New Orleans to reinvent itself for a better future."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on April 2, 2008 (download PDF).