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Among the Earliest Known Photographic Views of New Orleans

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463.     [PHOTOGRAPHY]. NEW ORLEANS, ST. CHARLES HOTEL. EDWARDS, Jay Dearborn (photographer). Untitled photo of street scene in New Orleans dominated by the St. Charles Hotel, smaller block of buildings in right foreground, numerous carriages and hacks in street. Salt print mounted on contemporary paper with pencil inscription: “St. Charles Hotel” at lower left; Edwards printed advertising slip printed in blue, mounted to verso (see below). Image: 14.5 x 18.7 cm; paper mount: 28 x 35 cm. New Orleans, ca. 1860. Image somewhat light, otherwise very fine. Mount lightly foxed with remnants of old mount at top, else fine. Rare and desirable image.

     This image is among the earliest known photographic views of New Orleans, one of a few dozen fine city views of antebellum New Orleans made by photographer Jay Dearborn Edwards between 1858 and 1861. (The earliest views were daguerreotypes made in 1839 and 1840, one of which was also of the St. Charles Hotel.) Edwards (1831-1900) became celebrated shortly after moving to New Orleans. Among other images he took were photographs of the U.S. Custom House construction. He eventually had several different addresses in New Orleans, but by the advent of the Civil War was dividing his time between New Orleans and Florida. Edwards quickly capitalized on the beginning of the Civil War by capturing war scenes around Pensacola, which he sold at a dollar each. After that time, however, Edwards’ life is a mystery, although he is known to have again practiced his trade in Virginia after the war, finally moving to Atlanta, where he died. See: Palmquist, Pioneer Photographers from the Mississippi to the Continental Divide, 1839-1865, pp. 230-231; and John H. Lawrence, A Closer Look: The Antebellum Photographs of Jay Dearborn Edwards, 1858-1861. New Orleans: The Historic New Orleans Collection, 2008.

     In the Historic New Orleans exhibit “Nineteenth-Century Photography as Seen through the Works of Jay Dearborn Edwards,” John H. Lawrence and Jay Dearborn Edwards (the latter the great-grandson of the photographer) observe:

Where Edwards acquired his technical knowledge of the new art of photography is unknown, but when he arrived in the Crescent City he was already producing photographs and by 1860 had established a studio at 19 Royal Street. At the time, the art of photography was a youthful 20 years old. Yet it had already undergone transformations its pioneers could not have foreseen. Early photographic processes—namely the daguerreotype, ambrotype, and tintype—produced unique images in the camera. The mid-1850s brought of a host of innovations, including shorter exposure times and the ability to create images that, when viewed with the proper equipment (a stereo viewer), presented convincing facsimiles of a three-dimensional world. The most important advancement of this period was the development of the wet-plate collodion negative process, allowing for the production and distribution of multiple prints. Edwards’s photographs, made from glass negatives, could theoretically be distributed in numbers as great as demand required. This ability made Edwards radically different from earlier photographers in New Orleans. His views of the city could be widely distributed, allowing for outsiders to see photographic images of New Orleans for the first time.

     Palmquist states that Edwards did not seem to have a regular gallery after he first set up in New Orleans in 1859 and listed a Post Office box number instead of a studio address, as is the case here. The printed label on verso of paper mount gives an excellent synopsis of Edwards’ capabilities, services, and ambitions:

From J.D. Edwards’ Gallery Of Photographic Art.

Views of New Orleans, the Bayous, Swamps, and Shell Piles of Louisiana, Niagara Falls, Mount Vernon, Washington, Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Providence, R.I. Harvard College, Cambridge Mass. New Hampshire, Montreal and Quebec, Canada, St. Louis, Mo Constantinople, Turkey, Rome, &c., &c. for sale at the Gallery cheap.

Views of Stores, Dwellings, Steamboats, &c. taken to order on short notice. Stereoscopic views of any part of the world obtained to order.

Old Likenesses enlarged to life size and painted in oil, water or pastel. Likeness and durability guaranteed. Ambrotypes, Photographs, Melainotypes, and all other kinds of pictures, taken in the first style of the art, and warranted at less prices than any other gallery in the south. Full instructions given in the art to Ladies and Gentlemen, Apparatus furnished, terms very moderate. Post Office Address J.D. Edwards Box E. No. 12, New Orleans La. [sic throughout].

     The dominant building in Edwards’ image is the old St. Charles Hotel on St. Charles Street near Canal Street. The original St. Charles Hotel was designed by premier New Orleans architect Charles Gallier, Sr. in 1835 and built over a three-year period at a cost of $700,000 atop what had been a quagmire. It was considered the American Section’s grandest building, a majestically Corinthian columned Greek revival showpiece topped by a huge dome forty-six feet in diameter. The 1904 Picayune Guide to New Orleans states that the St. Charles marked the beginning of the great hotels in America, and only after some years was it rivaled by the Astor House in New York City. In 1851 the hotel suffered a fire, but within a year the hotel was rebuilt without the dome.

     The St. Charles Hotel, as photographed here by Edwards, was the heart of commercial Anglo-American New Orleans, THE place to stay, the resort of wealthy planters, the scene of elegant weekly balls, and complete with a slave exchange. The St. Charles was the scene of historic events around the time of this photograph. In its parlors Jefferson Davis and Southern leaders decided the course to pursue on their way to the Charleston Convention in 1860. In 1862 the proprietors, who were Southern sympathizers, refused to allow General Butler and his officers to stay at the St. Charles, provoking a strong response from Butler and street riots by the populace who agreed with the management. On April 28, 1894, fire once again visited the St. Charles, whereupon Thomas Sully designed the ruins in Beaux Arts style and it became a favorite spot for the literary scene until its demolition in 1974. Jay Dearborn Edwards’ rare and historic photograph is a real and compelling linkage to a vanished icon of American architecture.



Auction 22 Abstracts

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