...Laughlin had a taste for decay and for the surreal, both of which are amply documented in this selection. Many of these photos are set in and around New Orleans, where he spent most of his life. Laughlin hated what he called the " 'soft focus' approach...of balcony and courtyard scenes by the arty professional French Quarter photographers"; his New Orleans is a city of sepulchers and shadows. --The Washington Post
Rarely does a new book of photographs offer much insight into the growth of American photography as fine art. Rarer still is the book which presents the work of a little-known photographer. A new collection of Clarence John Laughlin's (1905-1985) photographs does a little of both. In the process, it reconfirms the native Louisianian's place in a pantheon of Southern photographers which includes such notables as William Christenberry, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, William Eggleston, Sally Mann, Jerry N. Uelsmann and Lee Friedlander. Like Laughlin, these artists address subjects which may or may not be distinctively Southern in a manner which seems to be so. Many of the images in Haunter of Ruins reflect what historian Robert A. Sobieszek has identified as "a pronounced engagement with the magical and mysterious in American Southern Photography of this century." Southern artists, it seems, express universal images of faith, death, decay, loss, melancholic nostalgia and attendant emotions with a richness and depth unique to the region. Laughlin's work is no exception, but it is unique in that it predates by decades the mature work of the photographers listed above. Like Meatyard, but a full decade before Meatyar's brooding mid-century meditations on identity and ecay, Laughlin populated his studies of ruined architecture with shrouded and masked figures. Like Uelsmann, but again decades before Uelsmann defined his signature style of surreal composite images, Laughlin staged elaborate, allegorical double exposures. Also, he developed a "symbolic use of the camera," which surrealist photographer Man Ray identified as unique in American photography. Although Man Ray's assessment appears in Haunter of Ruins briefly and without further explanation, it hints at the importance of Laughlin's work and raises significant questions about the photographer's contribution to the medium. Some of those questions are indirectly answered by the book's excellent reproductions of images representing Laughlin's many photographic groups, discrete series of images often presenting mystical themes. As a mixed blessing, the book's six essays do not address Laughlin's legacy as explicitly as an art critic or historian might. Thus they do not answer many of the questions raised by the images. In fact, only two of the essayists, editors Jon Kukla and John H. Lawrence, are art historians. The balance is composed of literary figures Andrei Codrescu, Ellen Gilchrist, Shirley Ann Grau, John Wood, Albert Belisle Davis and Johnathan Williams. The book's literary emphasis is both intentional and appropriate, as the written word, from literature to simple correspondence, was one of Laughlin's passions. He often alluded to literary themes or even to specific works in his photography...Of these authors, Gilchrist, Williams and Wood most directly address the photographer's work. Codrescu, a Romanian migr well known to National Public Radio fans, offers an outsider's observation of Laughlin's architecture. Grau's brief essay does not refer to Laughlin at all, but reflects some of the haunted sense-memory of his work. Likewise, Davis's "Cajun Tour" of a New Orleans cemetery is a lighthearted reference to a favorite Laughlin subject...As new generations of Southern photographers struggle to understand their work in the context of the region's rich artistic traditions, Haunter of Ruins will remind them of one of their most interesting and underrated progenitors. Non-photographers may find that the book deepens their understanding of how writing and the visual arts inform and inspire each other. From either perspective, Haunter of Ruins is an eccentric, rare and truly valuable work. --University of Missouri Press
When I first saw Clarence John Laughlin's black-and-white visions of a haunted New Orleans, I was a callow youth who knew nothing firsthand of spirits and pain. My first thought was---gee, these are rather silly, aren't they? Just a bunch of old, falling-down buildings, some women wrapped up in gauze wearing masks and the occasional art-student odd angle. Yet I was also struck somehow by the fact that, though my mind could dismiss these pictures, my heart was nonetheless engaged by something more mysterious: a profound respect for any artist free enough to produce something so superficially dopey, and yet give it so much heart. Now that I'm older, wiser/sadder and have made the personal acquaintance of some ghosts of my own, I find the way-out-there dopiness of the "Ghosts Along the Mississippi" series an absolute treat, a feast of odd and wonderful passion. And, it seems such passion was what this artist was all about. In his introduction, Jon Kukla writes that "Laughlin's friends playfully suggest challenging the authenticity of a purported Laughlin photograph if it lacks the imprint of one of Clarence John Laughin's shirt buttons pressed into its surface. Before he relinquished a photograph to the gaze of his visitor," the story continues, "it was Laughlin's custom to clasp the print to his chest while exhorting the prospective viewer to a full anticipation of its merits." What a sweet way to send a picture out into the world. But Laughlin's images themselves are not sweet; they're very, very sad. He clearly wanted to disappear into the falling-down, ghost-ridden world he created on film. As Kukla says, he "found it profoundly disturbing that humanity was being 'shoved onto a plane on which the screw, the gear, and the girder reign.' " It is this palpable, almost visible sadness and sense of loss, I think, which touches the fans of Laughlin's work. For a confirmed Laughlin fan or a newbie, this retrospective book offers plenty to chew on. With excellent reproductions from 6 of the 23 photographic series Laughlin (who died in 1985) produced, it also features excerpts from his texts and letters as captions (he was also a fanatically productive writer) and interesting analysis and background. --Photo District News
Haunter of Ruins: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin has been compiled by The Historic New Orleans Collection, chosen by Laughlin as the archive for his photographs and writings. A traveling exhibition sponsored by The Historic New Orleans Collection accompanies this publication. Haunter of Ruins includes introductions by Jon Kukla, former Director of The Historic New Orleans Collection, and by John H. Lawrence, Director of Museum Programs at The Historic New Orleans Collection. Andrei Codrescu is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of Road Scholar and Blood Countess. Ellen Gilchrist is the author of fourteen books, including the National Book Award -- winning Victory Over Japan and her most recent novel, Sarah Conley. Shirley Ann Grau is the author of Roadwalkers, the Pulitzer-Prize -- winning The Keepers of the House, and other novels. Jonathan Williams is the author of An Ear in Bartram's Tree, Eight Days in Eire, and other books of poetry. Albert Belisle Davis is the author of the novels Leechtime and Marquis at Bay. Poet John Wood is the author of In Primary Light and The Gates of the Elect Kingdom as well as a study of daguerreotype photography.