Clarence John Laughlin - Photographer Poet
The Center for Visual Communication is pleased to present the first major exhibition of the photographs of American master Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) in over 15 years.
This comprehensive survey and reexamination of the iconoclast photographer-poet follows the over 250 museum and university gallery exhibitions mounted during his lifetime. The exhibition includes over 60 of the artist’s seminal and most important images.
Laughlin’s fiercely independent vision pioneered the use of the camera as a tool for creative and artistic expression during a time when the photographic image was used primarily as document. He introduced a third world of photography to a young medium seeking to expand its presence and find its place in popular culture.
Laughlin’s work transcends both documentation and “purism”, as advanced by Weston’s f-64 school, to explore and reveal the intangible, emotional, metaphysical and inner realms of object and place. His images are ripe with visual metaphors. Laughlin’s approach was groundbreaking with his development and use of visual analogs to the literary devices writers have used for centuries such as allusion, hyperbole, irony and metaphor. This is no surprise given Laughlin’s obsession with books, poetry and fiction. An inveterate collector of ideas, he assembled two complete libraries during his lifetime, each comprised of over 30,000 volumes.
One of the first to herald the importance of historic preservation, Laughlin labored over 15 years in near manic pursuit of the spirit and places of the rapidly disappearing the Old South. He photographed Louisiana’s most historically significant structures, many of which were in advanced stages of decay and are now completely gone. Ghosts Along the Mississippi was the result. In print for over 60 years, it became one of the most successful photographic books published in America. After the publication of Ghosts, Laughlin continued to work tirelessly crisscrossing the nation by train with cumbersome photographic equipment to capture the last remaining tangible evidence of Victorian life and its fantastic architecture.
While working for the OSS during the War he developed specialized photographic techniques which he subsequently adapted to give tangible form to his ideas. Laughlin used these tools with creative darkroom methods to present his vision and explore new ways of seeing past the obvious. Because the resulting imagery delved deeper into the realms of the possible, the fantastic and hyper-real, he is often considered the first American Surrealist.
The photographs in the exhibition represent examples from most of the 23 groups into which Laughlin categorized his work. Yet they only hint at the breadth and scope of his output of over 17,000 negatives. Laughlin’s work exhorts us to use our imagination and curiosity to find and experience the link between our physical and spiritual worlds. The exhibition sheds new light on how wide Laughlin’s Third World of Photography can open the doors onto a far more human world by revealing the depth and mystery just under the surface of our everyday lives.
The biography Clarence John Laughlin – Prophet Without Honor, recently published by University Press of Mississippi, closely examines the photographer’s motivations and life. The artist is also the subject of a soon to be released feature length documentary by award winning filmmaker Michael Murphy. Please check with the gallery for screening times of the film’s Florida premier.