Laughlin: Romanticist Extraordinaire, A Memoir

By Louis Gallo

Laughlin, Ghosts Along the Mississippi: An essay in the poetic interpretation of Louisiana’s plantation archictecture—One hundred photographs by the author (Bonanza Books, NY—1961)

Clarence John Laughlin, Aperture Monograph (1973)


I’ve never believed that literature is an ideal conduit for surrealism other than in spurts such as the “Nighttown” episode in Joyce’s Ulysses. Use it sparingly and it can be highly effective. Magical realism, for example, exploits such spurts brilliantly. But entire poems, novels—forget it. Certainly some superb surreal poems exist, but usually the poet’s rhetoric and style carry them, not sustained surrealism itself. Words have connotations and connotations imply meaning and meaning is logical. Logic may be an arbitrary rubric of communication, but it’s all we’ve got. We sacrifice much to communicate. Language betokens reality, whether we like it or not; it creates reality.

The same could be said for cinema—surrealism works piecemeal unless you, the viewer, gaze at a screen during some drug-induced, hallucinatory condition. Surrealism can power an entire MTV video only because such videos are short in duration. But photography, the graphic arts and, I think, even architecture can prove model avenues for surrealism. It’s as if photographs or paintings or drawings alchemize into concrete, frozen dreams which we can interpret in the same manner that we interpret poems. Hell, poems are dreams. Purists might object that the interpretation of dreams deforms and diminishes the dream itself, transforms it into a rational, anemic version of itself. Probably, but what’s the option? The medium is the message.

All this by way of introduction to Clarence John Laughlin, the internationally renowned photographer based in New Orleans his entire life. I will make no prolonged attempt to analyze Laughlin’s work or provide biographical details. I’m concentrating on the Friday night soirees he sponsored at his apartment in one of the New Orleans Pontalba Buildings (upper story, across from the old Jax Brewery). If you were anybody in the arts scene, circa the Bicentennial, you would wind up at one of these gatherings. Laughlin made sure of that. He kept tally of what was going on especially in the literary world of New Orleans. He himself had literary ambitions as he confesses in his essay-manifesto “The Personal Eye,” and I suspect that he regarded literature as an art form superior to photography. As a young man he tried to publish his poetry but failed. Ironically, qua photographer he had no rivals in the daring mode he chose to transmit his often Gothic, bizarre romanticism: the surreal.

Clarence John Laughlin, An Aperture Monograph (1973). One must really see Clarence’s photos to appreciate their depth and originality. I am restricted by copyright laws to reproduce them here, save those for which I hold the copyright (below), but one need only Google in “Clarence Laughlin” to behold a very fine array of his work.

In “The Personal Eye” Laughlin describes himself as an extreme romanticist. Reading this piece again, decades after I published it in 1974, I am struck by its passion, relevance and intellect. The essay is a revised version of Laughlin’s statement in the Aperture Monograph (1973), itself often entitled The Personal Eye. In it he applies the tenets of Wordsworth, but mostly Coleridge and Shelley, to photography. He mentions no antecedents but was clearly familiar with high Romanticist philosophy, theory and technique, the preface to Ghosts Along the Mississippi even containing epigraphs from Coleridge and Conrad Aiken. The genre of mainstream photography has always been pragmatic mimesis and realism, precisely what Laughlin rejects in the essay. He writes:

[the photographer] must be able to convey his individual vision. . . . it also means that the object (in the photograph) must be so grasped, and so treated . . . in terms of a presensitized individual imagination expressing itself through the so-called “impersonal lens’)—that the object does become personal—by acquiring meanings beyond itself. In fine, the object is then photographed in terms of what this individual imagination has projected into it; and the “projection” enables the camera to go beyond the naturalistic meaning of the object. It is only when the photograph presents the object in such a way that the meanings conveyed transcend the meanings of the object as a thing-in-itself-that photography becomes art.

Sounds a lot like Keats’s objective correlative: the poet projects his own sensibility and emotion into a poetic artifact, i.e., the poem, thus enabling readers to replicate that emotion via the very act of reading, the poet’s sensibility thereby correlating with that of the reader.

Clarence John LaughlinWhile many of the photos in Ghosts Along the Mississippi embrace old-fashioned “tenets of realism, many—to use Laughlin’s term—transcend mere depiction by deliberate manipulation of objects and people or by the photographer’s uncanny resonance and fascination with light:

. . .the mystery of time, the magic of light, and the enigma of reality—and their interrelationships—are my constant themes, and preoccupations. And 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. Light is one of the most basic and mysterious, phenomena in the universe; it is related on the one hand, to the fundamental vital processes of all living things; on the other, to the inner nature of time. Because of these metaphysical and poetic preoccupations, there is a frequent attempt, in my work, to show, in various ways, the unreality of the “real,” and the reality of the “unreal.” This results at time, in some disturbing effects. But art should be disturbing; it should make us both think and feel; it should affect the subconscious, as well as the conscious, mind.

My central position, therefore, is one of extreme romanticism . . . .

None of this may sound “new,” but to grasp Laughlin’s originality you must gaze upon and savor the photographs themselves.


AND NOW LET”S GET PERSONAL, in which Laughlin becomes Clarence

Memory, all experts agree, is a false thicket, a kind of mental Frankenstein’s monster. We sew together the pieces for a final botched version, an allele, of what really happened. Reconstructing what transpired thirty, forty years ago inevitably leads us astray; we embellish or diminish or forget entirely—there’s no getting back to the fabled past-in-itself. Moreover, impressions alter as we blitz through time. Thus I proceed with caution. What I record here is what I think actually occurred. Another witness might dispute some of my dates, facts, might even recall an entirely different Clarence. No matter, this is my version and mine alone. And here I call Laughlin “Clarence” throughout, for that is how I knew him.

Clarence reached out to me by telephone at some point in early 1974. Polite and civil, he explained who he was (I had never heard of him), and asked if I would be interested in publishing his short manifesto on photography. I had started a literary magazine, The Barataria Review, and Clarence saw the flyers posted about town. I agreed to take a look at his piece and soon I received either by mail or courier his crumpled manuscript—at first glance I shuddered. Typed on an old manual, some of the letters looked fuzzy and dirty; there were many crossed-out passages and much spidery, hand-written marginalia. My editors and I had to retype the thing to make it camera ready. No computers in those days. (In a frenzy of spring cleaning, I believe I donated the original to the Historic New Orleans Collection, though I could be wrong about its dispersal.)

First page of Laughlin’s “The Personal Eye,” Barataria Review, 1974, issue 1.  Below, left.

First page of Laughlin’s “The Personal Eye,” Barataria Review, 1974, issue 1. Below, left.

Clarence soon invited me to one of the infamous soirees that no doubt had started long before I arrived back in New Orleans. I attended many of these informal parties during the next two years or so. The group always consisted of about twelve to fifteen people, some regulars like poet Maxine Cassin (and her doting husband Joe), the late photographer Mike Smith (always with a different girl), sometimes writer Carol Flake (who would later write a book about New Orleans), and my crowd, usually Barataria co-editor David Hershkovits (who soon returned to Manhattan to publish The Paper) and his then-girlfriend Gwen. Sometimes Courier photographer Julie Nead came along. I think I saw artist George Dureau there once and dozens of others who showed up out of curiosity. Journalist Jeannie Blake of the Times-Picayune once came with me. The crowd always shifted.

To get to his third-floor apartment we had to climb three sets of steep, dark and long staircases. Clarence had difficulty walking and had hired a young Vietnamese fellow to run errands for him and secure groceries and supplies. I assume Clarence spent most of his days inside that apartment, given his age and declining health. He had a wife and family somewhere, I think in old Gentilly, but at the time they lived apart. Every now and then he referred to his “wife” but he never elaborated on the matter; yet it would be this wife who rescued him when he deteriorated to the point of needing constant life assistance. He was about seventy years old at the time and would pass ten years later in 1985.

Clarence was a difficult man to deal with; his visitors tolerated him because of his eccentric genius. He always seemed on edge and he ruled over those soirees like an autocrat issuing edicts. We were assigned seats, ordered not to touch any of his books or move around to any other room of the apartment. Poet Ralph Adamo informs me that he once brought a friend to one of the soirees and that the friend dared to pluck a book to examine; Clarence actually swatted his hands and insisted he return the book to its specified pile. It was a small place, maybe two or three rooms, a kitchen and bath. The “living room,” in addition to nearly ceiling-high towers of books, contained an arrangement of sofas, two facing each other with a coffee table between, another on one side, and a few ratty armchairs on the other. Clarence didn’t give a hoot about fashion or gentility or maintenance. Of average height, he seemed slightly overweight and wore plain shirts and wrinkled seersucker bermudas—and sandals as I recall. The place needed dusting badly and he kept the lights dim. Today I suspect the “experts” would classify him as a serious “hoarder.” None of his guests minded. We took him as one of the most bohemian characters we had ever met—a true artist who sacrificed every bourgeois nicety in service to his muse.

Another photo from “The Personal Eye,” Barataria Review, 1974, issue 1. Upper right.

Another photo from “The Personal Eye,” Barataria Review, 1974, issue 1. Upper right.

The “party” always progressed in the same manner. Clarence would nervously greet his guests and direct them toward their seats. When all had arrived—and they had better be on time—Clarence reminded everyone not to wander, not to touch his books, not to move at all until he served refreshments. He disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a large salver of plastic cups half-full of cheap, horrible, syrupy, medicinal blueberry wine and an assortment of cheap crackers (Ritz? Nabisco?), maybe some chunks of cheese. The wine made me gag and after a while, however impolite, I declined my portion. Nothing nastier this side of paradise, I assure you. But no one came for the wine and crackers. I honestly believe Clarence thought he was serving fine ambrosia and top notch scones. He fussed over the distribution of glasses and scolded anyone who spilled a drop or let cracker crumbs fall to the floor. We treated those cups and crackers almost sacredly, paranoid that we might incite Clarence’s wrath. The man lacked normative social skills, precisely what made him so interesting and entertaining. It took restraint not to laugh at some of his wisecracks and antics, but laughter in general had to be avoided. Clarence had a weird, sarcastic sense of humor and he often blurted out private asides (with a youthful twinkle in his eye) and chuckled at them. But he didn’t seem attuned to communal, tribal humor. I don’t think I ever heard him laugh except over his own witticisms. The occasions, however informal, smacked of the pious and ceremonial. It was as if we visitors were both present and absent at the same time. That we had come to worship. It was a one-man show all the way.

After “refreshments” Clarence always tiraded over his varicose veins and diverticulitis, the wretched condition of his legs, the saggy floors of his apartment, the constantly new regulations of the French Quarter Commission (Vieux Carre Commission?), the stifling heat, tourists . . . he spared no one who provoked his ire.

We visitors merely listened in silence. Every so often one of us would venture a response, but Clarence merely resumed his monologue. It was a pretty stiff gathering indeed. Everyone understood that we had come to pay homage to an artistic giant, however irascible and grouchy old age had reduced him. It amounted to a sort of worship. We had, after all, seen the photographs, the amazing, resplendent, haunting photographs. Despite his sincere attempts at conviviality, there was no getting up close and personal with Clarence. He remained aloof, stranded in some other dimension, oblivious to group dynamics. I had heard that as a boy he suffered severe introversion and loneliness, so I assume he remained thus throughout the years. I think he yearned for human rapport, especially with young people, but he couldn’t manage it—he was way too far off the grid. Respect him, we did; appreciate him, we did; admire him, we did. But nothing too intimate ever came of it.

Some complained that Clarence was pretentious because of the often flamboyant and unnecessary captions he provided as titles or commentaries on his photos. For the record, I found no pretense in the man whatever. He seemed resigned to himself and almost smugly satisfied with that self in his dealings with others. Nevertheless, some of his titles do verge on the extravagant: “The Eye that Never Sleeps,” “Haveth Childers Everywhere,” “The Appearance of Anonymous Man,”“We Cannot Bury Our Guilts,” “Mars in the House of Time” (all from Ghosts Along the Mississippi). But modernist art influenced Clarence enormously, and he did succumb to literary enhancement. He was indeed a graphic poet. And, after all, we find the same tendencies in surreal painters such as Yves Tanguy’s “Mama, Papa is Wounded!” and Ivan Albright’s “That Which I Should Have Done I Did Not Do” and Ernst’s “The Gramineous Bicycle Garnished with Bells.” Even modernist composers feel compelled to entitle their tone poems—“Thus Spake Zarathustra,” “The Unanswered Question” of Charles Ives, Gorecki’s “Already It is Dusk,” and so forth. Such flourishes bother me not at all; I welcome the grace notes. Those who dismiss them belong to the category of what Walker Percy called “objective-empiricists,” i.e., shallow purists unable to free themselves from arbitrary restrictions that they themselves “scientifically” impose. So, no, Clarence Laughlin was not a pretentious man, at least not when I knew him. If anything, he cherished communion with those far less talented and he presented himself as nothing special, despite his genius and domineering temper, the latter spawn from somewhere else deep in his psyche that had nothing to do with pretense. Clarence was an egoist, not an egotist.

A final word on Clarence’s books. In the room where we gathered, as I stated above, they abounded. You had to maze your way delicately through aisles engineered between piles and stacks to maneuver toward the sofas. Every book looked perfect, untouched, unread. That adjoining room contained the bulk of his collection, but Clarence permitted no entrance there. From my angle on the sofa I could spot even more ceiling-high piles and towers and endless book shelves; that room resembled nothing less than an official depository. When Clarence vacated the Pontalba for health reasons, LSU bought his entire collection—thirty thousand volumes! At one time I owned about twenty thousand and the spatial problems proved nightmarish, so, over the years, I have donated or sold many in my collection—with no regrets! Not true, many regrets. The Historic New Orleans Collection on Royal Street now houses most of Clarence’s photographs and manuscripts, including, I understand, his unpublished poetry. Those poems should be published by someone, whatever their quality. I have never read any of them so I can’t appraise, but if only for historical purposes they should be published. The failed writer turned photographer. Who knows, maybe his poetry was ahead of its time and would be appreciated today.

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