Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations in 1926

tebbsIn 1926, Robert W. Tebbs and his wife packed their camera gear into their car and headed to Louisiana on a mission to create a photographic catalog of the architectural diversity evident in the old plantation and farm homes that were still standing throughout the state. Despite many being destroyed during the Civil War or others being lost to neglect, Tebbs managed to capture 52 homes on film, and those photos were published in Robert W. Tebbs, Photographer to Architects: Louisiana Plantations in 1926 and finally made available to the public outside of the walls of the Louisiana State Museum, which owns the original prints.

This book is both beautiful and tragic. Beautiful because it captures the splendor of architectural grandeur that has long been abandoned in this country. Tragic because so many of these architectural achievements have been lost to neglect, fire, or the mighty Mississippi. I have often said that America waits until it is too late to preserve its history and the loss of these homes is further proof of that.

As to the quality of Tebbs’s photos, they leave much to be desired. Some are gorgeous and capture either the sad ruin or proud upkeep of these historic homes. Other images look tilted, as if he didn’t steady the camera before he took the picture. If the goal of Tebbs’s expedition was to create an architectural digest of Louisiana’s historic homes, he rather failed in that he took too few pictures at each location. Some locations feature the house, up-close photos of the support columns and their careful details, and views of inside staircases or fireplaces. These really gave the reader an idea of the artistic elements that made these homes grand. However, Tebbs seems to have lost the focus of his endeavor somewhere along the way. At several homes, he took only photos of the outbuildings and none of the homes themselves, many of which have since been demolished. Many pictures are taken from too far a distance to capture architectural details. I found myself wondering why, at homes were he clearly had indoor access, did Tebbs not take more photos of the particulars that made the homes worthy of being documented in the first place. Perhaps some of the negatives could not be developed. Maybe some photos were lost or missing when his wife left the collection to the Louisiana State Museum after his death.

I guess we’ll never know, but I do appreciate the photos that we do have as well as the histories of the homes and their inhabitants that accompany each photo. This book is a unique collection of images that won’t be found elsewhere. If it wasn’t for Tebbs, we would have nothing to show of those places that are now gone. If you love history, architecture, old homes, photography, or all of the above, this will be enjoyable read for you.

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