Monday’s Photography Inspiration – Clarence John Laughlin

“The creative photographer sets free the human contents of objects; and imparts humanity to the inhuman world around him.” – Clarence John Laughlin

Clarence John Laughlin was an American photographer born in 1905. He was best known for his surrealist photographs of the American South. His rocky childhood, southern heritage, and interest in literature influenced his work greatly. After losing everything in a failed rice-growing venture in 1910, his family was forced to relocate to New Orleans where Laughlin’s father found work in a factory. Laughlin was an introverted child with few friends and a close relationship with his father, who cultivated and encouraged his lifelong love of literature and whose death in 1918 devastated his son.

The Bat was modeled by Laughlin’s wife, Elizabeth Heintzen, posing in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. Heintzen stands as the mysterious central figure within the catacombs, draped all in black. Her head is hidden as she clings to the cracks in the walls at her sides. Laughlin described the symbols behind this piece: “In the abbey of make-believe, the image of hypocrisy appropriately appears concealing its head as with those who hypocritically hide their heads from the facts they don’t want to acknowledge.”
These tall Corinthian columns are all that remains of Windsor Plantation of Port Gibson, Mississippi. The home was burned first during the Civil War and then again mysteriously in 1890. The clouds above the columns form a question mark above the structure’s ruins. For Laughlin, this symbolized the unknown circumstances of the building’s demise. He wrote in the photo caption: “From the cores of the brick columns young trees sprout, the whole structure suggesting an incredible upsurge of Classical civilization, somehow completely lost in time and space.”

Although he dropped out of high school in 1920 after having barely completed his first year, Laughlin was an educated and highly literate man. His large vocabulary and love of language are evident in the elaborate captions he later wrote to accompany his photographs. He initially aspired to be a writer and wrote many poems and stories in the style of French symbolism, most of which remained unpublished.

Laughlin discovered photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to use a simple 2½ by 2¼ view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer and was subsequently employed by agencies as varied as Vogue Magazine and the US government. Disliking the constraints of government work, Laughlin eventually left Vogue after a conflict with then-editor Edward Steichen. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively on personal projects utilising a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from simple geometric abstractions of architectural features to elaborately staged allegories utilising models, costumes, and props. Through this period one of his favourite models was Dody Weston Thompson who went on to become a notable photographer in her own right.

Architecture, particularly historic buildings, was a passion of Laughlin’s, and photographing it provided both his main source of income and an endless source of creative inspiration. Laughlin saw the decay and ruin of grand structures as a metaphor for the disintegration of society. Rarely satisfied with straight documentation, he frequently employed experimental techniques, such as double exposure, to insert ethereal figures into the scene and build a narrative or make an allegorical statement.

Laughlin’s personal projects and large collection of images focused mostly on places and the architecture located there. His most well known works focus on New Orleans, but he also photographed in Chicago, Salt Lake City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, St. Louis, San Antonio, and Little Rock. With the photobook being the ultimate goal and measure for success for photographers, Laughlin achieved this in 1948 when Ghosts Along the Mississippi: The Magic of the Old Houses of Louisiana was first published. The book features 100 black and white images of photographs that are focused around the architecture of the south during the plantation era. Through this book, Laughlin was interested in representing the lengthy history of Louisiana and the feeling of life there, while also recognising the history of slavery as well as the imaginary situations that he created. 

Hired by the Army Corp of Engineers to document the building of New Orleans’s levees, Laughlin used his spare time along the waters of the Mississippi River to photograph the abandoned plantation homes of the Old South. His eerie architectural images, which depicted these grand structures as crumbling ghosts of the antebellum past, were the first of Laughlin’s works to receive attention from galleries and publishers.
Laughlin began photographing plantation homes when he moved from Washington, DC, back to his native New Orleans after being discharged from the Army in 1945. Most of these abandoned symbols of the Old South existed in varying states of disrepair and were set to be demolished, which motivated Laughlin to preserve them through photographs. He and his wife, Elizabeth, made day trips to visit the plantations. They drove down desolate back roads, picnicking on the lawns of these once regal structures marked with no trespassing signs.

Many historians credit Laughlin as being the first true surrealist photographer in the United States. His images are often nostalgic, reflecting the influence of Eugène Atget and other photographers who tried to capture vanishing urban landscapes.

A pair of surrealistic photographs of parts on a 1939 Ford, in which the photographer’s reflection as he took the pictures could be seen, were showcased in 2013 on an episode of Antiques Roadshow set in Baton Rouge, LA, and attributed to Clarence John Laughlin. The man who brought the photographs to the Roadshow knew Laughlin’s son, and saw the photos hanging at the son’s place of business. In order to acquire them, the man traded automobile repairs and various parts, first for one, then for the other. Their retail value, as a pair, was appraised at $7,000 to $9,000, although the owner indicated that he thought they were priceless.

From double exposures to collage to making photographs without a camera, Laughlin pushed the possibilities of photography to their technical limits. Throughout this gallery, Laughlin’s varied disruptions to the typical photographic process are fully demonstrated. Experimentation was quite popular in European art circles, while the American school of photography at the time was primarily concerned with the camera’s propensity for recording the “truth.” Laughlin’s stark divergence from this method put him at odds with the curators and artists who otherwise might have championed his more straightforward architectural images. Despite his outsider position for much of his life, Laughlin found great success in the 1970s and ’80s when artists and photographers began to embrace experimentation with the medium and favor of more expressive and abstract works.

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