Book tracks the work of Creole photographer
Occidental College professor Arthé A. Anthony, Ph. D., at the Los Angeles campus. Dr. Anthony, of Pasadena, who recently published a book called "Picturing Black New Orleans," is an American Studies Program professor at the college and has been teaching since 1979. (Raul Roa/Staff Photographer / November 28, 2012)
She was a Creole photographer in New Orleans in a time and place when postcards of lynchings were sold as souvenirs. She defied societal norms by working outside of the home as a business owner rather than a seamstress or maid. Arthé Anthony of Pasadena has brought Collins' work to light through her new book, “Picturing Black New Orleans” (University of Florida Press). It's a well-researched account of a woman who documented a part of New Orleans that was seldom seen as worthy of notice.
Anthony's doctorate is in comparative cultures from UC Irvine, and she is an American studies professor at Occidental College in Eagle Rock. She recalls sitting with her Great Aunt Florestine and looking at her scrapbook of family pictures. “She told me that she opened her studio in the 1930s,” Anthony says from her Pasadena home. “But I was able to trace it back to 1920. She had so many interests that being one of the few women photographers wasn't so special to her at the end of her life. After she retired and moved out here, she took classes at Dorsey High in ceramics and hat-making; she painted the outside of her house in her 60s.”
Collins photographed people of color from all backgrounds: adults, infants, boys and girls making their first communions, business leaders, families and servicemen. Anthony says: “There's a photo in the book of a woman named Mae Fuller from the mid-1920s. She's very much the flapper, looking confident and sexual. You'd never know that she worked as a domestic.”
Just as Van Der Zee's photographs were grounded in aspiration rather than realism, Collins' subjects have their best feet forward. “So many of them did day work,” Anthony explains. “But they got dressed in their best clothing when they went to her studio. These were people who were invisible to much of New Orleans, but Florestine portrayed them as they saw themselves: with dignity and worth.
“The Harlem Renaissance was embodied by the idea of the New Negro. That was a national concept, and we see it in Florestine's photos. These people demonstrate pride, self-respect and self-determination.”
Last Monday night, Anthony spoke of her book before a group of 25 on the second floor of Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. “This book came about in fits and starts,” said the petite Anthony. “I worked on it off and on for many years. The Amistad Collection at Tulane University and the Hogan jazz archive were very helpful to me. I also ran ads in a couple of papers like the Chicago Defender and got some responses from people who had her photos. Ed Boyer, a retired L.A. Times editor, was a great help to me throughout the process.”
Race and gender complexities were never far from Collins' work. “She contributed photos to the Louisiana Weekly,” Anthony says, “and those occasions were some of the few times she worked out of the studio. Her first studio was in the black business district, and some of her Creole customers didn't want to be seen going there. So Florestine would bring her equipment home and work there sometimes.”
Collins stepped away from her photography, but it may become more important now than ever before. “I spoke to a group of 75 people in New Orleans last March,” Anthony says. “Most of the people were Creoles. Some came forward and said they had some of Florestine's photos, but they were lost in Hurricane Katrina.”
KIRK SILSBEE writes about jazz and culture for Marquee.