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Clarence John Laughlin Collections: Biography


“My gradually evolved conviction that the camera could be used as an instrument to explore the mind of man, the inner world where man lives both by symbols and emotions, and that in achieving this, the camera would have been used in such a way that it became a direct extension of the luminous and super-sentient eye of the imagination – a third eye!” [1]
Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) was a writer, artist, photographer, and book collector from New Orleans, Louisiana. Credited as the first surrealist photographer in the United States, Laughlin is best known for his images of the American South and the publication Ghosts Along the Mississippi. He amassed an eclectic library of over 33,000 books intended to inform and enhance the creation of art. His love for books and literature started around age seven after a trip to the public library with his father. Fairy tales, like the Arabian Nights, fed his active imagination and incited a never-ending fascination with the fantastic.  
His father’s death during the flu epidemic of 1918 devastated Laughlin. He dropped out of high school in 1919 to support his mother and disabled sister. Early employment included clerical work in banks across New Orleans. Books, reading and photography provided an escape from this menial work. Around this time he started collecting books. Laughlin’s lifelong obsession with photography began with his first camera, which he obtained around 1930. He constructed his first dark room in 1935. The photographic works of Alfred Steiglitz, Paul Strand, Edward Weston, Man Ray, and Eugène Atget influenced him in his early career.
Laughlin began work as a professional photographer in 1936. He worked as a Civil Service photographer for the U.S. Engineer Corps through 1940. His technical skills improved while photographing levee and spillway construction along the Mississippi River. Laughlin worked at Vogue Studios in New York, and with the Photography Department of the National Archives in Washington D.C. He served in the U.S. Army with the Signal Corps Photographic Unit, and later with the Office of Strategic Services, during World War II. Laughlin was a self-employed professional photographer from 1946 through 1969. This work included photographing architecture for architects and magazines, publishing articles, and giving lectures.
He made personal, imaginative work in his own time. Professional photography provided a living and means to finance his personal projects. Laughlin maintained a dual practice of professional and personal work throughout his career. Publication of New Orleans and Its Living Past in 1941 and especially Ghosts Along the Mississippi in 1948 cemented Laughlin’s place on the periphery of fine-art photography. Ghosts is a metaphysical documentary depicting the architectural decay of Louisiana plantations. The book serves as a photographic essay showcasing his poetic vision, imaginative writing and ideologies.
Laughlin’s love affair with architecture is evident throughout his body of work. He was a staunch preservationist and lamented the destruction of old buildings with the construction of new, less imaginative ones. Laughlin aimed to preserve the spirit of a building, not merely to create a photographic record. His photographs capture countless buildings long since destroyed by time and demolition. Much of this work focuses on American Victorian architecture and decorative arts, and the architecture of New Orleans and Chicago.

[Architecture] “Came to mean a great deal to me: it became an essential part of my life. Eventually, I came to realize that architecture is the one art most completely involved with human lives.” [2]
Book collecting for Laughlin shared similarities with historic preservation. He sought to protect and archive a carefully curated selection of books for himself and the future. His love for writing, literature, and books formed the foundations of his photographic works. The library fueled his imagination and his lifelong interest in art, poetry, psychology and architecture. Laughlin believed a healthy imagination required cultivation through learning, research and exposure to new ideas. An active imagination was crucial to his philosophy regarding creative transcendence.
His photographs typically include extensive captions, considered integral to the work. Laughlin was a writer and a photographer. Both mediums were of equal importance. The words and image together made up the complete idea, complementing and explaining one another. Difficult to pinpoint or define, Laughlin’s works often encompass many ideas and concepts. This conversation between word and image often brings together disparate ideas illustrating their interrelatedness. Despite their complexities, the work remains singularly Laughlin, unique and indicative of his own way of seeing the world.
Laughlin made photographs imbued with his own imagination and creative stamp. In his practice the photographer projects their imagination into an object to convey it as a “thing-beyond-itself.” The method involves drawing upon the full extent of the human mind or engaging one’s inner world. Laughlin once stated when referencing his work,

“One of my basic feelings is that the mind, and the heart alike, of the photographer must be dedicated to the glory, the magic, and the mystery of light. The mystery of time, the magic of light, the enigma of reality – and their interrelationships – are my constant themes and preoccupations. Because of these metaphysical and poetic preoccupations, I frequently attempt to show in my work, in various ways, the unreality of the ‘real’ and the reality of the ‘unreal.’” [3]
Photographic works by Clarence John Laughlin cover a diverse range of subject matter. He organized over 17,000 sheet negatives of photographs into over twenty different groups. Laughlin stopped making new photographs in the late 1960s because of health issues. He began archiving and arranging his extensive body of work, personal papers and library in subsequent years. The bulk of Laughlin’s papers, photographic prints and negatives are at the Historic New Orleans Collection. LSU acquired the Clarence John Laughlin Book Collection in 1985, with support from the Friends of the LSU Libraries. The Laughlin Library of the Arts is accessible through LSU Special Collections in Baton Rouge.

Clarence John Laughlin was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, on August 14, 1905. His family moved to New Iberia in 1910 and settled in New Orleans circa 1912. Laughlin lived and worked primarily in New Orleans for most of his life. He died in New Orleans, Louisiana on January 2, 1985, and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, France.

Additional information on the LAUGHLIN BOOK COLLECTION.

[1] Clarence John Laughlin, an excerpt from “Architecture and the Camera” quoted in Haunter of Ruins: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, c1997) p. 7.
[2] Clarence John Laughlin, Lost Louisiana: An Essay in the Poetry of Remembrance (unpublished manuscript, begun ca. 1973) p. 3, Historic New Orleans Collection.
[3] Clarence John Laughlin, an excerpt from “A Statement by the Photographer,” Clarence John Laughlin: The Personal Eye (New York: Aperture Inc., c1973) p. 13.

black and white headshot of Clarence John Laughlin around age 40, wearing a three piece suit

Portrait of Clarence John Laughlin / Pose Number One / CJL # 04921 / June 12, 1948. The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1983.47.4.1292.


book jacket illustration depicting columns of a plantation home with book title text that reads “Ghosts Along the Mississippi”

Laughlin, Clarence John, Ghosts Along the Mississippi, (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1948), dust-jacket.

photo of young Clarence John Laughlin using a view camera to photograph a marble figure in St. Roch cemetery in New Orleans, LA

Clarence John Laughlin, St. Rock [sic] Cemetery / view of Clarence working at St. Roch Cemetery / May 1, 1935. The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection, acc. no. 1981.247.12.2.


book cover illustration depicting a black and white photograph by Clarence John Laughlin of an old abandoned house in New Orleans with a cloaked faceless figure peering out of the upstairs dormer

Laughlin, Clarence John, Haunter of ruins: the photography of Clarence John Laughlin, (Boston: Little Brown, 1997), cover.

The Historic New Orleans Collection is the major repository for the photographs and writings of pioneer surrealist and experimental photographer Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985), a native of Louisiana. Included in this digital collection are master prints, work prints, unique collages, and color experiments, as well as selected images by other photographers. The Laughlin Collection chronicles an active career that stretched from the early 1930s through the late 1960s. Laughlin's subjects include architecture and cemeteries of New Orleans, historic plantation architecture of southern Louisiana and the lower Mississippi valley, American Victorian architecture, contemporary architecture, interpretive photographic renditions of sculpture, and several series of symbolic photographs that use the camera to probe the subconscious mind.
Laughlin's business and personal correspondence, notebooks, negative index, clipping file, and published and unpublished manuscripts for books and articles are available to researchers at The Historic New Orleans Collection's Williams Research Center.


Digitized materials from the Clarence John Laughlin Photograph Collection can be found here.



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