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So Surreal: The Work of Clarence John Laughlin

An exhibit at the Historic New Orleans Collection focuses on the work of surrealist photographer Clarence John Laughlin.

Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection; © THNOC
Dark Thrust; 1935; by Clarence John Laughlin; The Clarence John LaughlinArchive at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1983.47.3.122; © THNOC

The exhibit is striking– not in a traditional sense– but in its simplicity of black and white photographs and old letters hung in neat rows against the backdrop of a white wall. The Historic New Orleans Collection’s latest exhibit, Clarence John Laughlin and His Contemporaries: A Picture and a Thousand Words, pays homage to Louisiana native photographer Clarence John Laughlin.

Clarence John Laughlin; by Michael P. Smith; The Historic New Orleans Collection, gift of Mrs. Clarence John Laughlin, 2006.0019.1.50 “Image courtesy of The Historic New Orleans Collection”

Laughlin, who lived from 1905 to 1985, was born in Lake Charles, La., and spent the majority of his life in New Orleans. He is regarded by others as a pioneer in surreal and experimental photography but by himself as a writer first. The exhibit highlights his particular photographic emphasis on architectural details and loss and decay with elements of surrealism. He is perhaps best known for the book Ghosts Along the Mississippi, a photographic collection of Louisiana’s disappearing and decaying plantation homes. Laughlin organized his photographs, which span half a century, into 23 groups, including “Group J: Images of the Past” and “Group L: Poems of Desolation.”

HNOC’s exhibit is split into two parts. The first delves into the photography of and letters between both Laughlin and his contemporaries. He wrote extensively to other notable photographers of the time, including Man Ray, Imogen Cunningham, Bill Brandt, and Edward Weston. Photographs by these renowned photographers, which they sent to Laughlin enclosed in their correspondence, also make up the first portion of the exhibit. Though Laughlin’s legacy paints him first and foremost as a photographer, his letters portray a poetic handling of the English language and should be viewed dually as autobiography and art. Working through the first part of the exhibit takes time, but reading through letters both written by and to Laughlin provides a deeper glimpse into who he was personally and professionally. In reading the words of Clarence John Laughlin, it is easy to see that his mind circulates through thoughts that are often attributed to those with an artistic lean: a certain disregard for societal norms, feelings of loneliness or isolation, and a healthy amount of romanticism and eagerness.

Where Shall We Go?; 1940; by Clarence John Laughlin; The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection, 1981.247.1.747; © THNOC. Courtesy of the Historic New Orleans Collection.

The second part of the exhibit, located across the courtyard, is focused more directly on Laughlin’s own photographs, correspondence with publishers, and publications. The works in this second portion of the exhibit are more experimental in nature, with haunting images and play with superimposing negatives. Cemeteries feature prominently in his photographs. One of the final works in the exhibit, “Elegy for the Old South Number Two,” is more traditional surrealist in form, à la Salvador Dali. A disembodied eye and arm, as well as architectural fragments, are forced to share a frame with an old plantation home, bulging out of the structure’s bays in ways that are moderately unsettling based on normal expectations of reality.

As Laughlin articulated so well: “But art should be disturbing; it should make us both think and feel; it should infect the subconscious as well as the conscious mind; it should never allow complacency nor condone the status quo.”

The exhibit is on view now at the Historic New Orleans Collection’s Williams Research Center (410 Chartres St.) through March 25. It is free and open to the public.

Emily Ramírez Hernández is the child of New Orleans natives whose families have been in the city for generations. Emily's earliest memories of New Orleans include joyful car rides over bumpy streets, eating dripping roast beef po-boys at Domilise's, and catching bouncy balls during Mardi Gras parades with cousins. An urban planner by day and freelance writer by night, when she is off the clock she enjoys biking around town, belly dancing, and catching nerdlesque shows.

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