By Ciara LaVelle
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At the Center for Visual Communication, the ghosts of a bygone era rise from the Big Easy in the haunting works of the iconoclastic photographer Clarence John Laughlin, who is often recognized as the first American surrealist.
"Clarence John Laughlin: Poet Photographer" marks the first major exhibit of the American master's work in more than 15 years and includes more than 60 of the artist's seminal images spanning the major themes of his career. Laughlin (1905-1985) was perhaps best known for his documentation of Louisiana plantations and for the astounding 17,000 negatives he produced during his lifetime.
Barry Fellman, director of the Center for Visual Communication and curator of the exhibit, was a longtime friend of the artist and has included examples of most of the 23 groups into which Laughlin categorized his work.
"He thought of himself as a writer and poet first and photographer second, and was the first to crash through the surface of straight documentation to find his imagery," Fellman says. "Clarence was an avid reader who amassed two libraries during his lifetime, each containing in excess of 30,000 volumes that informed his work. He was consumed by books on the paranormal, Surrealism, psychology, pulp, fantasy fiction, and outsider and folk art and was an incredible poet himself."
Laughlin, who was born in Louisiana and lived most of his life in New Orleans, discovered in his early twenties the literature of Charles Baudelaire and the French symbolists. Their influence is clearly visible in many of the dreamy black-and-white silver gelatin photographs that plumb the depths of the human psyche, combining elements of spirituality, myth, and unbridled imagination with an intuitive approach at once subtle and fierce.
Some of the images that perhaps best embody his artistic vision can be found in Poems of the Interior World, a series comprising 284 images taken over a decade's time.
Laughlin, who wrote extensive prose-like captions for his images, explained this series was intended as a mythology of the contemporary world. But rather than portraying gods or goddesses, his images were meant to "personify our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas," and represented symbols of states of mind rather than individuals.
"He discovered this third world of photography, empowering people to look beyond what's in front of their face," Fellman says. "He was creating these amazing images during a time the country was in a financial crisis and mired in the Second World War."
One of these is The Bat, an image in which a woman shrouded in black lace is shot from behind at the entrance of a mausoleum in a New Orleans necropolis. Her head is bowed and arms outstretched. An inky gossamer veil falls from her limbs, giving the impression of wings in midflight.
Laughlin equated the sinister apparition with hypocrisy, "which bat-like flitted everywhere from church, state to big business" and like those who "preached peace and humanity" led others into "confusion, war, and destruction instead."
Fellman says that when he visited Laughlin in his later years, the artist would often rail against Nixon, Reagan, and big business for hours on end. Not surprisingly, many of the searing images still pack a potent relevance.
Another arresting work is The Masks Grow to Us, in which a young woman wearing a pearl necklace and a black cowl gazes heavenward as half of her face appears to be transforming into a marble death mask. Laughlin uses several exposures on one negative to suggest that in modern society, the need to project multiple versions of ourselves invariably leads us to allow these adopted masks to harden and subsume our original characters.
"Part of Clarence's genius was showing how humanity or our culture was missing the boat," Fellman says. "By venturing into the unknown, he was trying to show us where we have gone wrong."
Another body of work that draws attention is his poetic documentation of Louisiana plantations and the ruins of historically important structures of the old South. Many of these building were in advancing states of decay and have since been lost.
Laughlin, who didn't drive, spent nearly two decades crisscrossing the region on foot and public transportation to capture the spirit of the Confederacy and its waning architecture.
"He was one of the first preservationists to recognize that an entire era of American life was becoming lost," Fellman says. "Those photographs taken during the period were later published in Laughlin's Ghosts Along the Mississippi, which was one of the most successful photography books ever published and which remained in print 60 years."
Final Act depicts the charred remains of Belle Grove Plantation the morning after tourists accidentally started a fire that consumed the stately manse. Arriving while the bricks were still hot to find gaping cavities in the walls against which "Spanish moss dripped against a distant sky — like a suppuration of doom," Laughlin was reminded of Piranesi's drawings of ancient Roman ruins or a "palace of antiquity — completely lost in time and space."
Equally mysterious is The Enigma, a picture of the ruins of Windsor Plantation near Port Gibson, Mississippi, which was nearly burned down during the Civil War. Interestingly, the plantation survived only to be torched to a crisp by another conflagration in 1890. All that is left is a phalanx of enormous columns, from which thickets of foliage sprout under powder-puff clouds. It conveys a sense of a rotting civilization still reeling under fate's death knell.