Clarence John Laughlin was born on August 14, 1905 in Lake Charles, LA. By 1910, his family lost everything in a failed agricultural venture growing rice and had to move to New Orleans, where his father took a factory job. When his father died in 1918, Laughlin was devastated. What made things even worse was a priest's promise that God would save his ailing parent if only he prayed hard enough. This dual sense of guilt and suspicion of religion would highly influence his work and view of life.
After dropping out of high school, Laughlin still had a passion for reading and writing. In the 1920s, he was drawn to the French writers and poets Théophile Gautier, Odilon Redon and Charles Baudelaire, and tried to emulate them, but was largely unsuccessful in getting his own work published.
He discovered photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to use a simple 2 1/2 by 2 1/4 view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer.
He had his first show in New Orleans and then New York in 1936. These were to be the first of many one-man shows by Laughlin. His work ranged from his highly personal artistry to fashion and documentation.
In 1940 Laughlin worked as a civil service photographer for the U.S. Corps of Engineers in Louisiana. He also worked for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar in New York during the 1930s and 1940s. But he apparently got into a dispute with Edward Steichen, who was then the photo editor at Vogue, and quit working for the magazine.
After leaving the commercial magazine business and focusing on his own work, Laughlin's personal style began to emerge, as he set out to capture something beyond reality--something "surreal". He photographed cemeteries, signage, architectural details, the wreckage of Louisiana plantation life and the bayou. He developed friendships and connections with numerous artists of his time, and even photographed alongside Edward Weston, who became a good friend. His best known book, "Ghosts along the Mississippi", was first published in 1948.
Laughlin describes some of his work in this way: "In it [the series Poems of Desolation] I have tried to create a mythology from our contemporary world. This mythology, instead of having gods and goddesses--has the personifications of our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas. By means of a complex integration of human figures (never presented as individuals, since the figures are intended only as symbols of states of mind); carefully chosen backgrounds; and selected objects; I attempted to project the symbolic reality of our time, so that the pictures become images of the psychological substructure of confusion, want and fear which have lead to great world wars, and which may lead to the end of human society..."
Laughlin bridges the ideas of today's contemporary artists with their concepts of staged photography and Henri Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment" approach. As he noted in an interview just before he died, "You don't go out and accidentally find something that's going to make a good picture, but [instead, you find it] in yourself, knowing already what you want to do…at least subconsciously if not consciously; you find a thing in so-called nature or so-called reality which corresponds to this preconceived, this pre-sensitized, concept, which is hidden somewhere in your imagination or your subconscious...You go out and find what you are already prepared to see."
Laughlin once said, "I especially want it made clear that I am an extreme romanticist--and I don't want to be presented as some kind of goddamned up-to-the-minute version of a semi-abstract photographer."
Laughlin was known for his extreme reticence and mysteriousness. Jonathan Williams said about him, "You can spend four days with CJL in the famous attic and only get to see seven prints. Each one is likely to require hours of briefing as Clarence clutches it to his bosom, smiles patiently and explains that the mysteries are about to be revealed at long last."
In 1970 Laughlin established an archive for his work at the University of Louisville.
He died on January 2, 1985 in New Orleans, LA. His ashes are in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.
The copyright to his work and a collection of his correspondence are held by Historic New Orleans.
Major holdings of his work are also in the collections of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; the University of Louisville Photographic Archives; the Historic New Orleans Collection; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Philadelphia Museum of Art; the Center for Creative Photography; the National Museum of American History; the Atlanta High Museum of Art; the Art Institute of Chicago; the Southeastern Architectural Archive; the Hallmark Photographic Collection (now housed at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City); the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art; the Menil Foundation; the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts; and the National Gallery of Australia. But there are also examples of his work in nearly every major institution in the U.S., plus in several international museums, such as the Museum Ludwig and the Canadian Centre for Architecture.
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