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A Legend After His Time 

A new biography of photographer Clarence John Laughlin examines the life and work of an artist whose full measure has not yet been realized.

The stairway to the fourth floor of the Upper Pontalba apartment did not leave a 24-year old winded on arrival, but on my first visit, in 1973, to the attic residence of photographer Clarence John Laughlin I realized how hard a climb it was for a man of 71. Clarence (as he encouraged those of us much younger to call him) was the authentic item: an artist living on his own terms in a large garret, filled with vintage photographs and thousands of books, books shelved, on table tops and neatly stacked floor-to-ceiling. The space radiated the personality of its occupant.

He had thinning gray hair and his posture was stooped, a casualty of lugging many volumes up those four stories since he had moved into the flat in 1947. The impact of World War II showed in his photographs of broken cityscapes, otherworldly scenes that today seem eerily prescient of Hurricane Katrina's ravages. He also made pictures lush with beauty. His images of the 1930s and '40s became archetypes for a later generation of photographers, like Michael P. Smith. I am thinking of Clarence's capacity to make statues in cemeteries look like people; the ramshackle wooden buildings that seemed human in the soft light; black people with faces resembling African masks; vine-shrouded pillars and porches that breathed elegance-in-decay; the balconies and stairwells that exude timelessness in their geometric swirls.

Clarence Laughlin's surrealism was years ahead of the visual culture. When he leafed through one of the illustrated rare books in his library, acquired from his trips, the forefinger that marked traces on the pictures was crooked, another sign of life's toll. "Such artistry," he would murmur at images of romance and fancy, beauty and decay.

He hosted salons in the old-fashioned European sense, three dozen people for an evening to discuss culture and ideas. Clarence's salons were focused on one idea: his work. He served warm, fruity wine; no one dared light a cigarette. In the twilight of his life, photography had won popular acceptance as an art form. His pictures, which museums had purchased, were drawing interest from connoisseurs. After a hard Bohemian life, Clarence was not about to serve high tea for collectors. Let them mingle with academics and unwashed young artists. Everyone seemed to feel comfortable with the mix. He would place a photograph on an easel and lecture on its thematic architecture, what had been on his mind in making it. As guests became restless he grew more pedantic. When he finally took a break, people fanned out to look at the books.

Clarence John Laughlin achieved renown in 1947 with Ghosts Along the Mississippi, a unique book about the dying plantation culture between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Elegiac tones suffused the black-and-white photographs and prose. It has now sold 100,000 copies. He found beauty in the architectural specimens with decaying pillars, and in the slave churches and cabins, "washed by the field of wild flowers and by the heavy melting clouds," as he wrote in a caption for Moss Swarm.

Influenced by Baudelaire and the stylized urban eye of Eugene Atget, who discovered Paris as a place apart, Clarence had a French aesthetic sensibility. His writing often ran too long. He fought with editors and curators, insisting that his words explaining an image not be cut. To Minor White, a distinguished photographer and early editor of Aperture magazine, he wrote: "Incidentally, I don't think you are a bastard -- I think you are a politician. (Which, in my estimation, is worse.) In other words, you are a politician who knows exactly who the 'important' people are, what to say about them, and their friends, and also, exactly who can be of help to you in making a living. Of course the world is full of politicians -- but the arts is one field they ought to stay out of."

In his new biography of Laughlin, A.J. Meek, an emeritus professor of art at LSU, writes of a pattern in Clarence's professional dealings:

Ê

ÒReacting only to the moment at hand in business and personal relationships, Laughlin seemed to burn his bridges at every turn.

ÒHis dominating personality and volatile temperament were proven handicaps. These unfortunate traits made some people wary of contact or professional dealings with him. He had no trouble speaking or writing exactly what was on his mind. His intentions were not malicious, and his incessant, uncompromising requests for perfection were well intended if egocentric.Ó

It is unfortunate that in this slender book, Meek offers little defense of the artist in his greatest struggle. Meek cites correspondence between Laughlin and Scribner's in the preparations for Ghosts Along the Mississippi. His editor was the legendary Maxwell Perkins, who had worked with Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe yet grown impatient with Laughlin's demands. When Perkins died, Scribner's was prepared to drop the book should Laughlin find another house. In the end, Scribner's did publish it; the pictures were poorly reproduced. With each reissue the quality of images was substandard. If the definition of a classic is a book that stays in print, Clarence produced a substantial classic, yet to this day the full measure of the work has not been realized.

Born in 1905 near Lake Charles, Clarence lived for a time in New Iberia before moving to New Orleans with his parents and sister. He was barely a teenager when his father died, which forced him to quit school and find work to support the family. He worked his way up to a bank teller's position, a job that left him feeling spiritually starved. His first marriage to a socialite foundered. Working on photographs, reading with the hunger of a writer, he was distracted by the toil of becoming an artist. In his 30s, he landed a job as a photographer for the U.S. (Army) Corps of Engineers, which paid him to follow the Mississippi River. On his own, he explored the city as if it were a person.

"What drove him to lonely sites and desolate, poverty-stricken neighborhoods?" writes Meek. "Perhaps it was New Orleans itself, with its wet decay and strange soft light. Certainly it was the death of his father and images of crucifixion, martyred saints, and resurrection found in the Catholic Church. Laughlin's obsession with symbols of death was evident in his photographic choices."

There is an organic quality to his scenes, a way of makingÊ objects and nature seem human. The Unending Sky, a 1941 picture of mausoleums under a cloud sweep over Girod Street Cemetery --Êsince demolished, where the Superdome stands today -- is a work of great spiritual power. He linked his aesthetic vision to "the tales time tells in the ciphers of broken bricks, in the language of leaning walls and hungry doorways; in the voice, silent, sirenic, and overwhelming which another people in another age left enthroned in the crumbling facades, the fallen balconies and ravaged chambers of a once-beautiful and splendid city."

During World War II, he worked in Washington, D.C., for the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. His revulsion to war showed in the astonishing way he captured dying buildings. A New Orleans slum could suffice for Dresden. After the war, back in New Orleans, he secured assignments as an architectural photographer. He built his career with great struggle and isolation. For many years, he took the bus from the French Quarter out to Metairie and used the darkroom on the estate of Edgar Stern on Bamboo Road, today the site of Longue Vue House and Gardens. He married five times, the last time in the 1970s -- a remarriage to his second wife, Elizabeth, the mother of his two sons. He had a daughter by another wife. According to Meek, he was too work-obsessed to be much of a father.

Meek calls Clarence "a social reactionary" -- a simplistic and erroneous opinion about a man who hated war and a white Southerner who detested racism. He spoke out in 1980 against a plan by the State of Louisiana to put the world's largest toxic waste incinerator on a flood plain in Ascension Parish, next to Houmas House plantation. "This is madness!" he thundered at a press conference. No one else of prominence stood with him. A few years later, the Louisiana Supreme Court killed the project. Meek's subtitle is correct, however: prophet without honor.

Late in life, Clarence moved to Gentilly with Elizabeth; he sold his personal archive to The Historic New Orleans Collection for $300,000. Today, certain of his images sell in outlets like A Gallery for Fine Photography, but with the bulk of his work at HNOC, the salable prints are rare and pricey. Ghosts Along the Mississippi still circulates on the Internet and in used bookstores, but the masterwork that launched Clarence John Laughlin's career has yet to be published with the quality it deserves. Should that happen, we will see at last the brilliant arc of his vision.

click to enlarge Clarence John Laughlin often photographed images of - death and decay. - HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION
click to enlarge Biographer A.J. Meek says that Laughlin's interest in - Catholic symbols and themes of resurrection related to the - early death of his father. - HISTORIC NEW ORLEANS COLLECTION
  • Historic New Orleans Collection
  • Biographer A.J. Meek says that Laughlin's interest in Catholic symbols and themes of resurrection related to the early death of his father.
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