Before being a photographer, Clarence John Laughlin was an urban explorer. He was a lover of ruins, the streets, and history. He would often ignore no trespassing signs, and sneak into off-limits locations to enjoy the beauty of something wasting away. A love for ruins has always been a part of the Romantic mindset, as can be seen in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich and Arnold Böcklin. But unlike his predecessors, who focused on the ruins of medieval castles, churches, and Roman cities, Laughlin looked to the plantations of the Old South, and the changing face of the American city, most notably New Orleans.
Laughlin’s New Orleans streetscapes and cemeteries, when at their strongest, resemble the paintings of Giorgio de Chirico. Shadows become enigmatic. Pillars and archways, void of people, look like places you might have visited in a dream. Sometimes there is an ethereal vanishing point. At other times, the rough roads or elegant interiors take on a complexity that mixes branches and old wooden doors with spiral staircases and cast iron fences. Camera in hand, Laughlin passed inside broken houses and down dark alleyways, preserving in photographs the old world that modernism was trying to erase. But he also used the city as a source for interpretation. The camera became not just a tool to document, but a tool to view the world in new disorienting ways.
Outside of New Orleans, his favorite subjects were the dying plantation houses along the Mississippi. When it comes to death these photographs are twofold. They are images of old structures coming apart at the seams, but they double as symbols of a different kind of darkness. The plantations were once places where people were enslaved, tortured, and murdered. No matter how beautiful the buildings look, it’s a history that cannot be erased. The locations serve as markers of a repulsive past, but there is a unique beauty about the buildings that pulls the viewer in. The feelings are contradictory. When not shown as matter-of-fact photographs, Laughlin double exposed the plantation mansions with Oak trees covered in Spanish moss, as if to combat the history and decay with some kind of positive representation of growth. It’s what surrealists would identify as the unification of two opposing states. The resolution of life and death.
Laughlin considered himself a surrealist. It’s even written on his tombstone. Similar to Salvador Dalí and Max Ernst, he often used double images to project his own inner world onto the outer world of appearances. When shot correctly, Laughlin could make a burnt melted object take on the characteristics of a human face, or transform a pineapple into a rocket ship. He disrupted the mundane ways of viewing the world and gave the viewer new eyes. When a heart-shaped wreath was placed just right on a tombstone, Laughlin showed that it might also be viewed as a strange living creature, such as in his photograph The Insect-Headed Tombstone. The viewer sees things that aren’t physically there but are still somehow captured through the camera lens.
The photographs of Laughlin’s that affect me most are his veiled women. Largely collected in his photographic group Poems from the Inner World, these women are a repetitive motif. He littered them throughout the ruins, mansions, cemeteries, and partially torn down buildings. They are hidden behind black veils and sheets or masked with mirrors. Some are even wrapped in plastic. They mimic classical statuary. Women frozen in time. Parallels can be made to Rene Magritte’s shrouded women, as seen in a painting like L’Invention de la vie. They are mysterious, dark, and unavailable. Sometimes they are the centerpiece of the composition, but they can also be hidden in the picture, mixed in with the surrounding environs.
The most haunting of these women is in Laughlin’s photograph The Repulsive Bed. A woman, dressed in black, sits on a collapsed piece of furniture. It is presumably a bed, although it’s impossible to tell due to its mangled condition. She is veiled, but she is also in the shadows. She sits in a spacious, yet destroyed room. Behind her is a burnt door with paint peeling off it, and to her right is a fireplace. Taken after one of Laughlin’s many divorces, the photograph can’t help but point to Laughlin’s own troubled relationship with the opposite sex. In his caption for the piece, he wrote that this is the image of a marriage without love. Usually, I find that what an artist has written about a piece only obfuscates the real meaning, but with this caption, I think Laughlin had an extraordinary moment of transparency.
It is photographs such as these mentioned that make Laughlin a paragon of sorts. He held the keys to a new field of vision. His entire body of work, which spans over 17,000 images, was a continuous exploration of what he called the enigma of reality. When I’m exploring New Orleans, whether in it’s famous cemeteries, the French Quarter, on levees, or even under freeways, I can’t help but wonder how Laughlin would have framed what I’m seeing today. New Orleans is a place where you surrender to the atmosphere. Hidden within it are doors to other worlds, and you only need to find the right way of looking to walk through them. Laughlin knew this. He opened the doors.
You can browse many of Laughlin’s photographs online at The Clarence John Laughlin Photograph Collection courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection.