Skip to Content

Clarence John Laughlin

Showing 1 of 1

Print this page

Clarence John Laughlin
(1905 - 1985)

Clarence John Laughlin was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana in August, 1905, the child of French and Scotch-Irish parents.(1) As a child, he lived on a plantation near New Iberia, Louisiana until his family moved to New Orleans in 1910. Laughlin's father died in 1918 and Laughlin left high school to support his mother and sister. Though he was no longer attending school, he developed an intense love for reading. By the late 1920s he began to collect books, eventually owning over 15,000.

Between 1924 and 1935, Laughlin worked at a variety of small commercial jobs and clerked at banks. Around 1925, he began to read the works of Baudelaire and the French Symbolists, which inspired him to write prose poems and Gothic fiction. In 1934, he became intrigued by photography when he began to read the works of the Surrealists and first saw the photographs of Man Ray. He also discovered the works of Alfred Stieglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, and Eugene Atget and eventually decided to try his hand at photography. Laughlin learned to photograph through trial and error, and in 1936, held his first one-man show of photographs at the Isaac Delgado Museum of New Orleans (now the New Orleans Museum of Art). Between 1936 and 1940, Laughlin used his new skills as a Civil Service photographer, taking photographs for the U. S. Engineer Corps of levee construction on the Mississippi between New Orleans and Vicksburg.
By 1939, Laughlin had begun to experiment with a new kind of photography: "I had embarked on creating pictures in which specific people were intuitively arranged against specifically chosen backgrounds...all in terms of internal compulsions." He called his new technique the Third World of Photography which he described as a blend of 'purist' design elements, such as an emphasis on composition(2), texture, and tone, with elements of symbolism, subjectivity, and a reliance on the human imagination.
One of Laughlin's favorite subjects was the architecture of old New Orleans, its houses, cemeteries, and churches. In November of 1940, his New Orleans photographs were shown with Atget's photos of Paris at the Julien Levy Gallery in New York. It was during this show that Laughlin sold some of his first works. In 1940, Laughlin began to do fashion photography for Vogue Magazine in New York, and in 1941, he went to work for the photography department of the National Archives in Washington, D. C. Laughlin enlisted in the Army in 1942 and was assigned to the Signal Corps Photographic Center on Long Island. In 1943, he was requisitioned by the Office of Strategic Services to produce color photographs of secret maps and documents. He was discharged from the Army in 1946.
After the war, Laughlin returned to New Orleans and supported himself by taking photographs of contemporary architecture for architectural firms and magazines. His first book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi , a collection of photographs of ruined plantations, was published in 1948. During the same year there were two shows of his work, one titled The Photographs of Clarence Laughlin at the Phillips Memorial Gallery (now called the Phillips Collection) in Washington, D. C. which ran from January to February, and a second called The Camera as a Third Eye at the Philadelphia Museum of Art from February to April.
During the next twenty years, Laughlin's career blossomed.(2) He published a number of articles in various publications including Magazine of Art, Harper's Bazaar, Popular Photography, The Architectural Review, Modern Photography, College Art Journal and Life Magazine , and was also the subject of articles in these and other publications. As well, Laughlin traveled throughout the United States lecturing on the aesthetics of photography, Louisiana architecture, and American Victorian architecture. Some of his lecture venues included the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Phillips Gallery in Washington, D. C., the Cleveland Museum of Art, Harvard, Yale, the University of Wisconsin and the University of Texas. During this period his work appeared in more than 200 one-man shows in museums and university art galleries throughout the country. Laughlin also designed and circulated five traveling shows of his work: The Camera as a Third Eye, Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Sculpture Seen Anew: The Bronze Age to Brancusi, Old Milwaukee Rediscovered, andPhoenix Re-arisen: A Vision of Victorian Chicago.
In 1968, Laughlin was named an Associate of Research at the University of Louisville and in 1976, Tulane University awarded him an Honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree. He also organized three additional exhibitions of his photographs: The Personal Eye, a retrospective organized by the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1973; The Transforming Eye which opened at the American Cultural Center in Paris in 1981 and traveled to ten other French cities; and Edward Weston and Clarence John Laughlin: An Introduction to the Third World of Photography, which opened at the New Orleans Museum of Art in 1982. Laughlin died in New Orleans in 1985.
Laughlin's works can be found in a variety of collections across the United States including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Phillips Collection, the Fogg Art Museum, the Smithsonian Institution Photography Department, and the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In 1970, his archive, composed of over 17,000 sheet film negatives and accompanying notes and captions, was transferred to the University of Louisville for preservation. The Historic New Orleans Collection now serves as the official repository and owner of the Clarence John Laughlin Collection, which includes his master prints, definitive print collection, memorabilia, and some manuscript material.
Throughout his photographic career, Laughlin was obsessed with the themes of time, mystery, reality, and death.(4) He worked primarily with a view camera and practiced both print manipulation and directorial photography, frequently setting up the scenes he photographed, and collaging images, reversing negatives, and layering photographs. Laughlin usually mounted his prints himself. His earliest works were mounted on black board, then white, and eventually 2-ply white rag board late in his career. They are normally signed in the lower right corner on the mount and most of the mount is trimmed away. There also are usually copious notes written on the backs of the prints and/or the mounting board, listing number of prints produced, exposure and developing times, exhibition lists, etc.(5) Laughlin also was deeply concerned with conveying the meanings he meant to imply in his works and wrote extensive explanations to accompany many of his works. He classified his photographs into twenty-three categories such as "The Images of the Lost", "The Inner World Made Manifest", "The Magic of the Object", and "Dream of Victoriana".(6)
Laughlin has described his theoretical position as " of extreme romanticism--the concept of "reality" as being, innately, mystery and magic; the intuitive awareness of the power of the "unknown" [emphasis by the author]."(7) Excerpts from Laughlin's own essays on his work best describe his beliefs and theories about his Third World of Photography: "The huge area covered by the inclusive term, 'The Third World of Photography', can be sub-divided into three modes of approaching reality: (1) The Poetic Approach; (2) The Surrealist Approach; (3) The Transcendence of the Object--because each of these modes, in a slightly different way, goes progressively further into the mystery of 'reality'. And all three modes have a common goal: the alteration of the 'reality' of the object (so as to indicate some of the limitations of our sense); the revelation of hidden realities and meanings in the most ordinary objects; the creation of a 'reality' more necessary to the human heart and the human mind...Instead of treating the object only in terms of design, texture, and tone...the object, additionally, [can] be treated in terms of inner perceptions and compulsions, in terms of intuition and symbolism...By this means, literary and poetic connotations [can] be added to the visual image in such a way that...they [form] a fusion with it, thus rendering the fused verbal-visual complex stronger..." (8) Laughlin believed that photographs should convey the photographer's way of seeing and should be clearly stamped with the artist's personality by the ways in which objects were treated.(9) "It is only when the photograph presents the object so that the meanings conveyed transcend the meaning of the object as a thing-in-itself that photography becomes art."(10) In his photography, Laughlin strove to tie together his interests in painting, poetry, psychology, and architecture. (1)Information on Laughlin's life and career has been compiled from the following sources: Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye, Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973; Douglas Davis, "New Orleans Ghosts", Newsweek, April 24, 1978, pp. 90-92; Clarence John Laughlin, "An Introduction to the Third World of Photography", Edward Weston and Clarence John Laughlin: An Introduction to the Third World of Photography, New Orleans Museum of Art, New Orleans, Louisiana, 1982, pp. 6-10; Charles Hagen, "Reviews: Clarence John Laughlin", Robert Miller Gallery, Artforum, December, 1985, p. 85; Allen Ellenzweig, "Clarence John Laughlin at Robert Miller", Art in America, February 1986, pp. 127-128; (2)Laughlin, 1982, p. 10 (3)For a complete list of Laughlin's publications and exhibitions see The Personal Eye, 1973, pp. 125-132 4)The Personal Eye, 1973, p. 13. "The mystery of time, the magic of light, the enigma of reality...are my constant themes and preoccupations. " (5)This information was provided in October, 1996 by Jude Solomon, librarian of the Historic New Orleans Collection, the archive for Laughlin's work. (6)For a complete list and descriptions of Laughlin's twenty-three categories, see The Personal Eye, 1973, pp. 116-125 (7)The Personal Eye, 1973, p. 14 (8)Laughlin, 1982, p. 10 (9)The Personal Eye, 1973, p. 13 (10)The Personal Eye, 1973, p. 13
M. Bullock 10/09/96

Artist Objects

Your current search criteria is: Artist/Maker is "Clarence John Laughlin".