New Orleans 1867  by Gary A. Van Zante

New Orleans 1867

by Gary A. Van Zante

Published by Merrell

303 pages, 2008






The Nola Portfolio

Reviewed by Aaron Blanton


In 1867, two years after the end of the American Civil War, New Orleans photographer Theodore Lilienthal (1829-1894) was given an important assignment. Under orders from the city’s politicians and top business people, and with a desire for boosterism and image-building during the time of Reconstruction -- the German-born Lilienthal was paid 2000 dollars -- an enormous sum in post-war New Orleans -- to undertake a 12 week photographic project. The final portfolio was known as La Nouvelle Orléans et ses environs and included 150 photographs and 50 stereoscopic views of the city, which  Lilienthal showed in late May of that year in his Poydras Street studio.

Lilienthal’s portfolio of New Orleans images became the first municipally sponsored photographic survey of an American city. In New Orleans 1867, Gary A. Van Zante, MIT curator of architecture and design, collects the 126 surviving images from the portfolio, studies them and places them within the various historical contexts of the Civil War, civic planning and this important -- often beleaguered -- city itself. From Van Zante’s perspective, 2005’s Hurricane Katrina was just the latest in a history of emergencies that have left their mark.

New Orleans has been shaped by disaster more than perhaps any other American city; certainly few cities in the country have been reconstructed more often. Floods, hurricanes, epidemics, fire, and war have for nearly three centuries imperiled the vulnerable, but resilient, city.

Since the work of a single photographer is at the heart of New Orleans 1867, it is appropriate that a chapter has been devoted to a close look at Theodore Lilienthal, his life and his oeuvre. As Van Zante tells us, Lilienthal’s career in New Orleans lasted 40 years and “spanned the technological development of photography from daguerrotypy to dry plate.” Lilienthal’s story is  not, in all ways, a happy story, but it is certainly an interesting one.

New Orleans 1867 is much, much more than a collection -- and recollection -- of those important photographs. Though, to be honest, that would be enough. However, Van Zante here presents us with an important and memorable book. Lilienthal’s photos anchor it, certainly. But Van Zante’s careful curating, the addition maps from 1867, as well as Van Zante’s own lucid and extensive editorial contribute to making  not only a historically important book, but a permanent record of the history of one of America’s most important cities. | April 2008


Aaron Blanton is an expatriate Kentuckian writer and musician living outside of the United States.