The collection consists of gelatin silver prints made by New Orleans photographer Howard “Cole” Coleman (1883-1969) and donated to Tulane University in memory of his wife, Thelma Hecht Coleman. Most images represent Coleman’s professional work in Louisiana; a smaller number consists of copy-stand images taken from historic documents. Most predate his wife’s death in August 1963.
As a commercial photographer, Coleman specialized in local subjects developed in series. His photographs have a documentary quality since his darkroom work relied primarily on enlargements and cropping. The collection thus includes straight photographs and corresponding negatives of visiting celebrities, jazz musicians, notable structures, festival culture, restaurants, wildlife and foreign trade operations.
By the late 1950s and influenced by his wife, Coleman focused on the region’s historic architecture, especially rural plantations and Vieux Carré buildings. He took an interest in documenting the same subjects over the course of time, photographing buildings before and after renovations or other significant changes. He used the same approach with his commercial Mardi Gras images, situating his camera in two locations along major parade routes to systematically photograph passing float processions. Gallier Hall (545 St. Charles Street) and the Keller-Zander building (814 Canal Street) typically form the backdrop to his these images.
Notable amongst his non-architectural series are time-based and aerial photographs. Two separate series of negative images record the sequences of activities associated with Algiers “poor boy” bread-making and Bayou Barataria shrimping. Two series of aerial photographs document trade operations along the Mississippi River, one centered on the Industrial Canal at North Claiborne Avenue and the other on the International Foreign Trade Zone. Wharf productivity is emphasized, with steamers, tugboats, stevedores and exports featuring prominently.
A smaller group of images document celebrities in New Orleans. He photographed First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and military aviators Eddie Rickenbacker and Claire Lee Chennault. He recorded Nelson Eddy and Jeannette MacDonald’s appearances at a New Orleans Muscular Dystrophy benefit and Dorothy Lamour’s 1956 Mardi Gras participation. His images of Denise Darcel (1924-2011) clowning with floats in the Rex den coincided with a period in which the French-American actress was regularly performing in New Orleans theatres and night clubs. The Famous Door, the Paddock Lounge, and Alphonse Picou’s St. Claude Avenue funeral drew his attention to local musicians, although this was not a mainstay of his professional work.