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VALLEY WEEKEND : ART : Pictures Paint Poignant Image of Post-Bellum : Life Along the Mississippi : A collection of vintage photos from Natchez, Miss., will be on view at three area venues.

October 12, 1995|ROBIN RAUZI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

When Dr. Thomas Gandy bought dozens of boxes from a photographer's widow, he didn't quite know what he was getting.

Gandy certainly knew that the widow had inherited the negatives from the photo studio run by her husband and her father-in-law. He also knew that she didn't seem willing to part with them--the boxes had been sitting on her patio for a number of years.

It took months of conversation over tea before she sold him the entire collection. He didn't dare examine his investment until he got it home.

One by one he opened the boxes and looked at the glass negatives, some nearly a century old. On almost every one he could make out an image. In total, the Natchez, Miss., doctor and history buff had just purchased 75,000 pictures documenting life in the town from 1870 onward.

In the 35 years since, those boxes have spawned three books, aided dozens of researchers, and been shown at London's Barbican Centre. Now the Henry C. Norman collection--named for the photographer who recorded most of the images--will come to Los Angeles for its first major U.S. exhibition.

"Natchez on the Mississippi," organized and sponsored by Cal State Northridge, comprises more than 400 photographs at three venues. The largest show, at the CSUN art galleries, reveals life after the Civil War in this important Mississippi River town.

On the eve of the Civil War, more millionaires lived in Natchez than in any other part of the Confederacy, says CSUN history professor Ronald L.F. Davis. It was the geographic and economic hub for the plantation economy that stretched from New Orleans to Memphis. It was home to the second-largest slave market, but also had a well-established community of free blacks.

Because Natchez fell to the Union army early in the war, it was spared the destruction that befell many Southern cities. Its city hall was never burned, the Victorian houses never raided by union soldiers. The citizens' wealth saved the town from atrophy after the war.

In 1870, 20-year-old Henry C. Norman opened a photography studio in Natchez. He spent the rest of his life documenting life in town, along the river and on plantations.

In 1968, Davis, a graduate student at the University of Missouri, was looking for a place to study the shift from plantations to sharecropping. A professor took him to Natchez. Since the railroad and the highway--neither of which came to Natchez--had replaced the river as the paths of commerce, modernization never fully reached the town. It remained almost perfectly preserved.

"What I found was a sort of Brigadoon--this place I couldn't believe still existed. The blacks and whites there had roots reaching far back, from the Spanish and French eras," Davis said. "It was the site of the wealthiest plantations in the Old South. It is in some ways, in Southern history, comparable to Philadelphia in the Colonial period."

Davis has continued to do research in Natchez and now brings his graduate students to the town to study everything from the coastal slave trade to prostitution. He and his students have formed an unlikely connection between Northridge and Natchez that transcends the thousands of miles and radically different lifestyles.

In choosing photos to send to Los Angeles, Gandy and his wife, Joan, tried to pick ones that reflected Natchez's diverse population. Gandy made almost all the 11-by-14-inch prints in his darkroom, remaining true to Norman's composition: he cropped images only when the negative was damaged.

"How interesting that at a time when there might be a lot of focus on race, that people in Los Angeles might come to see this very interesting little Southern town," said Joan Gandy in a phone interview from Natchez. "I think there is a picture of humanity here that is maybe more American than it is anything. . . . Most people think of the history of the Deep South as being racially divided. I'd like them to see the men on the street standing side by side. I'd like them to see the portraits of the well-to-do African-American residents."

Each part of the exhibition will contain an overview of Natchez. The city's sizable and integrated Jewish community is revealed through 50 photographs at the Platt Gallery at the University of Judaism (Oct. 26 to Nov. 14). Another 150 photos at the California Afro-American Museum in Exposition Park (Oct. 16 to Nov. 17) will focus on post-bellum life for former slaves and free blacks.

Rick Moss, history curator of the Afro-American Museum, said the pictures illuminate aspects of the Reconstruction period often overlooked. "There's an argument that's been made by a number of African-American historians that it wasn't until after the Civil War and into the second half of the 19th Century that blacks could even conceive of themselves as Americans," Moss said.

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