On Chartres Street in New Orleans’s French Quarter is a galley for photography called A Gallery (http://www.agallery.com ). I walked by late when the place was closed. Rain slick cobbles reflected the flickering flames from the old gas lamps on the corner. The facade like all the facades it seems in the French Quarter — whether for woman’s shoe boutique or antique store or pharmacy or Creole bistro or jazz joint or tourist trinket emporium or voodoo shop or palmistry studio or massage parlor or whiskey bar — everywhere are picture-windows wood-framed and back-set, inviting one to peek in, as into a diorama or a shadow box. The entire quarter has the feel of a labyrinth constructed of curiosity cabinets divided by narrow alleys that seem to tempt admission, as if to peepshows or opium dens. There was something about A Gallery, however, that promised authentic intrigue.
The next morning walking by after a cafe au lait, I peaked in the door-window over the closed-sign, trying to get a better look by the morning light. A curly haired gentleman with a mephistophelean chin-beard pulled open the door as if harried, as if he was late for the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and told me, in a tone that couldn’t decide if it was apology or admonishment or foreboding, “I am opening up in just three minutes!” (I looked at my clock; the place wasn’t scheduled to open for another fifteen.) When I returned, the doors were wide but in the entrance like a guardian idol to an ancient temple sat an antique wooden box camera. Inside the gallery, the walls were of distressed boards and displayed all about, everywhere with fantastic pictures. Jumping out were immediately recognizable images, landscapes by Sabastio Salgado and portraits by Annie Leibowitz. But new work was also prominent: an exhibition of surreal mixed-media images by New Orleans based collaborators Louviere + Vanessa. Up a back stairway to a second floor was a choicely curated selection of Helmut Newton nudes. I spied a hand-colored tableau by Joel Peter-Witkin that I’d never seen before. “New work,” I was told by the man with the beard. I did not pick up the conversation, at the moment, suddenly too distracted by a gorgeously posed couple by Jan Saudek. And scattered throughout the place were the famous Storyville photographs of E.J. Bellocq. I felt like I had walked right through the lens of that old wooden box camera in the doorway and into a memory palace of the history of photography. I wandered about A Gallery for, it seemed, too brief a time, though my family said they waited for me down the street for nearly an hour. Within the next twenty-four hours, I returned twice more to stare at the walls and to talk with the proprietors. A Gallery is a uniquely hospitable treasure house in the city of wonders that is New Orleans.
(Note: The featured image at the head of this post is cut from Jan Saudek’s “Horn of Plenty.”)