Heart of Louisiana: Old photos

Published: Jun. 26, 2012 at 11:40 PM CDT|Updated: Jan. 11, 2013 at 3:39 PM CST
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They refresh our memory, or give us a glimpse of ancestors we never knew. They provide an exact recording of a split second in time, a black & white or full color image from the past.  And as we have learned from disasters, photographs are one of our most precious family possessions.

"We have about 200,000 photographs in the collection," says Tony Lewis, the curator of the state museum's photo collection.

The collection is tucked away in a secure French Quarter warehouse.  Filing cabinets and boxes are packed with pictures, the oldest dating back 170 years.

"This is one of the most amazing things we have in our collection and I'm just stunned by it," says Lewis. "This is a photogenic drawing."

This primitive form of photograph was taken by a young assistant who helped John James Audubon paint the backgrounds on his Birds of America.

"Maybe as early as 1835, he made this photograph, which is done by laying these various objects, ferns and flowers and little cut out pieces of paper onto a piece of sensitized paper and then exposing it to light for a period of time," says Lewis.

A few years later, in the 1840's, photographers were making daguerreotypes.

"That was made by sensitizing a sheet of copper with silver, polishing it and then exposing it to light, and then it's developed with mercury," Lewis tells us.

There is an authenticity to a photograph.   One picture shows workers building the customs house in 1860, a room of Confederate soldiers, French Market butchers, a woman selling pralines, and an unknown man reading the newspaper.

The State Museum does a lot more than just collect old pictures.  They're constantly looking for events, people and places that they can photograph today, pictures that will become tomorrow's history.

"There are certain things that have cried out for coverage," says the museum's chief photographer, Mark Sindler.  "For example, the first Mardi Gras after Hurricane Katrina."

As a cultural documentarian, Sindler looks for those special moments that show our triumphs and struggles, and puts them in the context of place and time.  Sindler captured the installation of the cupola on the Presbytere the day before Hurricane Katrina, and a southwest Louisiana cattle drive before Hurricane Rita wiped out much of the herd.

"People always say there are aspects of Louisiana culture and of course New Orleans culture that you see nowhere else in the world," says Sindler.  "So to be in the thick of things on a regular basis is great."

From the catastrophic to our everyday lives, the Louisiana State Museum's 200,000 photographs provide a permanent reference of who we are.

You can view some of these fascinating photographs online on the Louisiana State Museum's photography page on Facebook.  And if you have old family photos that you want to preserve, we have some online tips on the best way to do it at – just click on the Heart of Louisiana.