John Laughlin: Prophet Without Honor
University Press of Mississippi,
Jackson, Mississippi, 2007
218 pp. Trade, $30.00
Reviewed by Allan Graubard
442 West 57th Street, #3H,
New York, NY 10019, USA
Finally there is a biography on Clarence
John Laughlin, the photographer and writer
who, from his New Orleans home, gained
a distinguished place for his work and
for his vision of the work itself. It
is a biography that well frames the character
of the man, his struggles and successes
as a creator, and the resonance he left
behind after his death in January 1985;
a resonance as essential then as it is
now, perhaps more so now, with "imaging"
become all too facile, popular and mundane.
For Laughlin, however, the photographic
image was never a means to capture appearance,
and leave it at that. Against the prevailing
norms of his day, from documentary to
purism to abstraction, with a few colleagues
he found along the way (Wynn Bullock and
Frederick Sommer, particularly), Laughlin
insisted that the photograph symbolize
our relation to the world, and what it
reveals of that relationship. As Laughlin
put it in his influential essay, The
Personal Eye (in an expanded version
of his introduction to his 1973 Aperture
monograph): "It is only
when the photograph presents the object
in such a way that the meanings conveyed
transcend the meaning of the object as
a thing in itself that photography becomes
.The mystery of time, the
magic of light, the enigma of reality
and their inter-relationships
are my constant themes and preoccupations
central position therefore is one of extreme
" Laughlin continues
by appealing to the "intuitive awareness
of the powers of the unknown," and
"frequently attempts to show the
unreality of the real and
the reality of the unreal"
in an art that "should be
should make us think
should infect the
subconscious as well as the conscious
should never allow complacency
nor condone the status quo."
A call to principles still? -- no doubt;
a measure of the man, his life, what he
did and how he did it? -- precisely. But
such was Laughlin, and such remains his
place in the art of photography.
Laughlin is born in Lake Charles, Louisiana,
in 1905. He moves with his parents to
New Orleans around 1910, where he lives
the rest of his life with frequent trips
to photograph, exhibit and lecture as
his career foliates. As a boy, by dint
of poverty, he is forced to quit school
during 8th grade. His reading
is omnivorous, however, and from fairy
tales and fantasies he graduates to Baudelaire,
who inspires him to write. Further studies
include correspondence classes in science,
chemistry and medicine from LSU, New Orleans.
By 1930, he makes his first photos, and
by 1931 contacts Alfred Steiglitz in New
York for encouragement that never comes.
In 1936, after failing to find a market
for his prose, Laughlin commits to photography,
making it his lifes work.
Laughlins Creole roots and Catholic
upbringing all play into his love of place,
as it reveals itself through his camera
lens. New Orleans, of course, is a city
haunted by the past, so too the ruins
of plantation culture, now all but completely
gone as Laughlin knew it; the splendid
and the tragic intermixing pervasively,
with visual echoes of that history in
an abandoned home, a lost graveyard, an
odd street stung by the pressures of modernity.
For Laughlin, the city and its countryside
become a means to reveal photography anew.
His "Poems of the Inner World,"
begun in 1939, in which he draws from
his environs "symbols of our fears,
frustrations, desires and dilemmas,"
define a unique "departure for American
photography" as war explodes in Europe.
And his masterwork, Ghosts Along the
Mississippi: An Essay in the Poetic Interpretation
of Louisianas Plantation Architecture,
first published in 1948 (still available
to this day, despite the loss of the original
plates and the need to reprint from published
halftones, with each edition ever more
compromised) attests to the poignancy
he entrusts to his vision, and which we,
his audience, continue to draw from.
Laughlins sensitivity to architecture
takes him to Chicago, Los Angeles, New
York, Boston, and other towns and places,
which he photographs and writes about
brilliantly. During it all, he sustains
himself and his family on the margins
with few grace periods. And it is only
after years of effort, an immense artistic
labor referenced throughout the biography,
that Laughlin attains international prominence
as a photographer of uncommon artistry.
Ironically, his penchant for staging photos,
so criticized in former decades, seems
now all too current while his requirement
that each photo exhibited or published
be followed by his writing on it still
evokes quizzical response from critics
who cant understand why a photographer
would want, or need, to resort to words.
But for Laughlin, the image was enough
only when it engaged his full response.
Esthetics was something less, and in its
worst form a brand of "politics"
that Laughlin railed against, especially
when it came to arbiters of taste, such
as Minor White, whose somewhat more complex
relation with Laughlin this book details.
By the 1970s and 80s, Laughlin reached
an apogee of renown, and with it came
the kind of remuneration he should have
profited from in years prior. Money to
live and to work on had always been an
issue, most times desperately so, and
his health suffered as a result. Considering
the fact that Laughlin did his best work
during many years when he used a dark
room some 10 miles from his home, traveling
there by New Orleans bus, lugging pounds
of developing fluids, trays and such as
a norm, with the result of well over 10,000
prints, the epical nature of the work
becomes clear. During his last decade,
Laughlin catalogued and wrote about each
of his photographs, so that generations
to come would benefit not only from the
image but from the intent that provoked
its creation. And we still are awaiting
a definitive book on Laughlins entire
I knew Clarence John Laughlin during the
last ten years of his life, and would
visit him in New Orleans when I could.
If ever there were an artist deserving
of our serious consideration, it is Laughlin.
And hopefully this biography will lead
us back to him, and the enchantments,
terrors, and desires he exposed on film.
My only regret concerns the publisher
who perhaps found it more convenient,
and slightly less expensive, not to honor
Laughlins art by reproducing his
photos with the clarity they deserve.
Let us hope that this does not occur again.