Reviewer biography

Current Reviews

Review Articles

Book Reviews Archive

Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet Without Honor

by A.J. Meek
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 an art….The mystery of time, the magic of light, the enigma of reality — and their inter-relationships — are my constant themes and preoccupations….My central position therefore is one of extreme romanticism…" 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 disturbing;…should make us think and feel;…should infect the subconscious as well as the conscious mind;…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 life’s work.

Laughlin’s 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 Louisiana’s 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.

Laughlin’s 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 can’t 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 Laughlin’s entire oeuvre.

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 Laughlin’s art by reproducing his photos with the clarity they deserve. Let us hope that this does not occur again



Updated 1st August 2007

Contact LDR: ldr@leonardo.org

Contact Leonardo: isast@sfsu.edu

copyright © 2007 ISAST