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Masters of Photography
Clarence John Laughlin

Text from John H. Lawrence, Haunter of Ruins

Images and Words

At his death on January 2, 1985, Clarence Laughlin remained, like the title of one of his best-known photographs, an enigma. Labeling him as such is no more or less accurate or useful than calling him a surrealist, a romantic, a modernist, or a fantasist, though each of these terms describes an aspect of Laughlin's character and his achievements as a visual artist. To explain the mystery of Laughlin's work would be not only presumptuous effrontery but quite possibly a fool's errand, an enterprise doomed to failure. This omnium-gatherum of photographs, quotations, and essays serves not as an explanation of the enigma but a suggestion of its boundaries.

Clarence John Laughlin was born near the city of Lake Charles, Louisiana, in the southwestern corner of the state on August 10, 1905. While he was still a young boy his family moved to New Orleans, and with the exception of a brief sojourn to New York in the early 1940s and time spent in Washington, D.C., during World War II, he remained a resident of the city, for virtually his entire life. His father introduced him to the world of children's literature and fantasy through the public library in New Orleans, and the young Laughlin was fascinated with books from then on. His personal library at his death numbered some thirty, thousand volumes on subjects as varied as science fiction, Victorian erotica, contemporary Sculpture, and illustrated fairy tales, and included runs of avant-garde periodicals. The omnivorous (though never indiscriminate) range of Laughlin's taste in books, magazines, and literature provided a self-constructed underpinning for his work in photography.

Like so many important aspects of his life, Laughlin's career as a photographer was essentially of his own making. During the depths of the Great Depression, when he was approaching the age of thirty, he taught himself the fundamentals of the medium using simple cameras and home- made enlarging equipment. In the first ten years of his career, Laughlin was employed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Vogue and the Office of Strategic Services, but the two decades following World War II were strictly self-directed.

During this period, Laughlin earned a modest living as a freelance architectural photographer, receiving commissions from architects in the South and Midwest to photograph residences, power plants, hospitals, and office buildings that were the tangible manifestations and solid legacy of the postwar building boom. He supplemented this income by lecturing about his creative photographic work and theories at colleges and universities throughout the United States; he was also paid for the circulation of a series of traveling exhibitions based on thematic groupings of his work. Laughlin frequently took trips combining photographic commissions, lecture dates, and photography reflecting his personal interests. These journeys, invariably by train, could keep him away from New Orleans and his borrowed darkroom for weeks at a time. Upon his return, marathon sessions to develop and print work for clients and himself were the rule.

Laughlin pursued his own interests, writing articles illustrated with his pictures on such subjects as the sculptural and decorative ornamentation in New Orleans cemeteries, the use of wrought and cast iron in nineteenth-century buildings, and the unique and imaginative qualities of American Victorian architecture. These articles were occasionally published in periodicals devoted to creative photography or architecture. The variety of subjects is testimony to his interests and his ingenuity in promoting his brand of photography to editors and publishers. Ghosts Along the Mississippi, a lavish volume of Laughlin's photographs and text about Louisiana's plantation architecture first published in 1948 and continually reprinted for nearly forty years, brought in steady royalty payments that allowed the photographer creative freedom.

An operating principle in Laughlin's photography was that of association and interconnectedness, especially that linked to and through the subconscious mind. A glimpse into the Laughlin subconscious is gained from examining the nearly two dozen distinct groupings that he made for his more than seventeen thousand pictures, created for the most part between 1935 and 1965. Although organizing his photographs into groups is something that Laughlin had decided upon early in his career as a photographer, he was always tweaking the groups and their contents. The ultimate arrangement occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s: Laughlin had virtually ceased being an active photographer, and he spent several years refining the group structure and the written captions to his work. Laughlin's descriptions of these groups, beginning with Group A, "Still Lifes," and concluding with Group W, "Fantasy in Europe," are reproduced in the appendix.

These categories provide the basis for the photograph selection and commissioned essays in this work. Some liberties were taken in the presentation of these groups. For example, the "The Magic of the Object" section also includes some pictures from "Still Lifes" and "The Mystery of Space" categories. It can be rationally argued that "Still Lifes," which includes Laughlin's earliest photographs, provides the formal prototypes for "The Magic of the Object" series. Many photographs in "The Mystery of Space" group were made at the same time and share similar concerns as those in "The Magic of the Object" series. Furthermore, Laughlin often assigned a particular image to more than one group and, as he expanded the after-the-fact meaning of certain images, shifted them from one group to another.

In addition to the formal Intellectual structure that Laughlin imposed with the group designations, he further defined his visual intentions by the written commentary that accompanied a great many of his pictures. However compelling the photographs might be as pictorial displays, writing Is what launches them into a larger realm, a world of challenging ideas. These written commentaries on specific images have often been characterized as restrictive, heavy-handed, or unnecessary. Such criticism ignores the fact that Laughlin's first and abiding interest was in the written word, even though he was recognized essentially as a visual artist; from the outset, the linkage of visual and verbal issues was paramount in his work. Laughlin argued that the specific reading of a photograph suggested by its caption was not necessarily true: although the captions explained his intent, they could be used as starting points for other avenues of exploration. Laughlin was a postmodern borrower decades before the term was coined: every experience, every antecedent - whether overt or subliminal - was fair game for incorporation into his work.

The after-the-photographic-fact fine-tuning that Laughlin brought to his work was part of his process. He often gave variant titles to the same work. The permutations sometimes offer a synonym for a key word in the title, and other times they entirely rethink the thrust and direction of the main idea. The care with which the titles were constructed point again to the primary role of language that Laughlin envisioned in his completed work. Indeed, he felt a photograph to be incomplete if it lacked a sufficiently poetic title and caption.

The importance of the written word to Laughlin is evident in another way. The Laughlin Archive at the Historic New Orleans Collection contains thousands of pages of correspondence pertaining to Laughlin's life and career. Personal and business letters, photographic logbooks, audiotapes of his lectures, and manuscripts of published and unpublished works cover the daily events and transactions, the ebb and flow of personal life, as well as providing valuable insight into his artistic process and intentions.

Laughlin was an indefatigable correspondent; literally thousands of' letters were examined to extract the quotations that accompany the photographs in this book. The correspondence in the archive is two-sided: Laughlin not only preserved the letters sent to him, but retained carbon copies of virtually all outgoing letters. In letters to his friends, Laughlin, when freed from the conscious directive of creating a caption for a particular image, provides telling commentary on his own work. His written exchanges with artists, writers, and academics contain pointed and astute observations about his work. Such correspondence indicates Laughlin's sense of contemporary events in art and literature and the position that his own work occupied in that milieu. Particularly revealing are the extended exchange of letters with artist Weeks Hall during the late 1930s and early 1940s and fiery, almost embittered, correspondence with publishers Houghton Mifflin (1938-41) and Scribner's (1946-48) concerning his photographs and writing as they appeared in print. His philosophical differences with Minor White, editor of' the influential journal Aperture emerge in a spirited volley of letters from the late 1950s. In his correspondence, Laughlin was never daunted by his lack of formal education, spotty beyond the grade-school level.

In a comprehensive examination of the Laughlin Archive - photographs, negatives, letters, and the intellectual presence of a vast personal library - it is not surprising that the written word takes on such prominence, permeating nearly every aspect of his photographic career. Accounts of twenty-hour workdays in the darkroom and at the typewriter (Laughlin never employed secretaries or photographic assistants) certainly seem credible given the volume of photographic and written evidence. One can only marvel that he ever did it all.


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