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A veiled figure of uncertain provenance stands enshrined in a ruined mansion. A dead bird hangs from a wire, its wings suspended above statues of the Holy Family. A human hand breaks through masonry cracks on a mausoleum, reaching for “dead hearts,” the title tells us.

Welcome to the phantasmagorical world of Clarence John Laughlin, a lifelong New Orleans resident and one of the most visionary photographers of the 20th century. But while most people know him through his images, photography was not Laughlin’s first calling.

“He saw himself very much as a writer,” says documentary filmmaker Gene Fredericks, director of The Phantasmagorical Clarence John Laughlin, who accompanied me to a preview of Clarence Charles Laughlin and His Contemporaries: A Picture and a Thousand Words. Now on view at The Historic New Orleans Collection, the exhibit runs through March 25, 2017.

“This show really illustrates the volume of effort he put into his writing career,” notes Fredericks, who was impressed by the exhibit’s depth and breadth. “Just the sheer volume of letters and correspondence, and the [photographic] work that he did to complement that.”

Jack-in-the-Wall; 1954; by Clarence John Laughlin

The Iron Faces; 1941; by Clarence John Laughlin

Where Shall We Go?; 1940; by Clarence John Laughlin

Dark Thrust; 1935; by Clarence John Laughlin

Flame God; 1944; photogram with applied inks and dyes by Clarence John Laughlin

Drawn from the complete archive of Laughlin’s work, which co-curator John Lawrence helped THNOC obtain in its entirety in the early 1980s, the wide-ranging exhibit juxtaposes letters and prints Laughlin exchanged with other noted photographers, from Edmond Weston and Edward Steichen to Diane Arbus. It also includes a wealth of correspondence with galleries, editors and a stunning cast of surrealist icons like Andre Breton, Man Ray and Joseph Cornell.

Lawrence credits co-curators Jude Solomon and Mallory Taylor with doing the “heavy lifting,” which proved to be a Sisyphean task. For more than a year, the team worked their way through 120 boxes of correspondence, stored in manila file folders that would tower 48 feet high if stacked on top of each other. But there was a method (of sorts) to their madness: “She took the evens and I took the odd boxes,” Solomon says with a grin.

What they gleaned is a trove of material in which the letters shed light on the photographs, and the images illuminate the meaning of the words.

Visitors are initially drawn into Laughlin’s world through works displayed in the Print Exchange gallery. “Clarence wanted to get known and published beyond Louisiana, where I think he felt culturally isolated,” says Solomon. So from the outset of his career, Laughlin wrote to world-class photographers and sent them prints. Many reciprocated by sending prints of their own.

Never one to believe in false modesty, Laughlin started at the top. He sent prints to Alfred Stieglitz, then at the zenith of his career, who found them “of interest”; and to Life photographer Margaret Burke-White, who failed to respond. But as his art matured, he was soon exchanging prints with pre-eminent figures like Edward Weston, who left a print as a thank-you gift after Laughlin served as his tour guide to Louisiana plantations.

Diane Arbus was delighted to reciprocate Laughlin’s gift of prints with some of her own, but had to stall him; she was breaking in a new camera, as she explained in a charming postcard. So was assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, whose reply to Laughlin was as elegant as one of his shadowboxes and adorned with a Cornell cutout.

In adjoining galleries, visitors are introduced to Laughlin’s bread-and-butter work for various art photography journals and glossy magazines, including Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue (a brief but memorable stint).

I have opened the doors of the world that we know, and have found a world so fantastic, so incredible that it constitutes a new mode of existence, a new kind of reality. Clarence John Laughlin

That material is juxtaposed with Ghosts Along the Missisissippi: The Magic of the Old Houses of Louisiana, which became a surprise bestseller when it was published in 1948. Laughlin himself wrote the text, though his Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins nixed his elaborate cover design, diplomatically deeming it “effective … artistically [but not] practicable.”

Laughlin could be prickly, and not all of the correspondence is cordial. A contentious decades-long relationship with Aperture cofounder Minor White blew hot and cold, but was finally redeemed when the Aperture Foundation commissioned The Personal Eye as a stand-alone issue of the magazine in 1973.

“The business aspect of being a photographer is very interesting,” notes Solomon, pointing to an exchange with Julien Levy, owner of a prestigious New York gallery. In one 1940 letter, Levy suggests “selling prints for $7.50 or $10 at most,” underscoring the fact that photography was still the red-headed stepchild of the fine arts back then.

Though most prolific in the 50s, 60s and 70s, Laughlin continued to work and exhibit until his death in 1985. His last major show was in 1980 at a gallery in Toulouse, France, where Fredericks shot footage for his documentary a few years earlier.

Archival material from Toulouse is displayed in the final gallery, which also houses an enlargement of the last words Laughlin wrote. Though he typically used a typewriter, deeming his handwriting impossible to read, on his death bed he reached for a paper and pen and scrawled a final statement on an art-world label he frequently disowned: Surrealism.

“I have opened the doors of the world that we know,” wrote Laughlin, “& have found a world so fantastic, so incredible that it constitutes a new mode of existence, a new kind of reality.”

The worlds revealed through Laughlin’s photographs are dense and deep, sometimes disturbing and often breathtakingly beautiful. So are the words that weave the images together. This is a show you will want to visit more than once, and luckily, you can. Admission is free, and the exhibit runs through March 25, 2017.

top image: The Unending Stream; 1941; by Clarence John Laughlin. All images via The Clarence John Laughlin Archive at The Historic New Orleans Collection.

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The Historic New Orleans Collection

The Historic New Orleans Collection (THNOC) is a museum, research center, and publisher dedicated to preserving the history and culture of New Orleans and the Gulf South. Its holdings comprise more than one million items from more than three centuries, documenting moments both major and minor. Its four exhibition spaces–the Williams Gallery, the Louisiana History Galleries, the Boyd Cruise Gallery, and the Laura Simon Nelson Galleries for Louisiana Art–faithfully depict the multicultural stories of the region, from permanent displays exploring the evolution of Louisiana to rotating exhibitions showcasing history and fine art.

Southern Food

The Southern Food and Beverage Museum is a nonprofit living history organization dedicated to the discovery, understanding and celebration of the food, drink and the related culture of the South. While based in New Orleans, the Museum examines and celebrates all the cultures that have come together through the centuries to create the South’s unique culinary heritage. The Museum is also home to the collections of the Museum of the American Cocktail, the Galerie d’Absinthe, and a demonstration kitchen.

Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities

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The Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities’ mission is to provide all Louisianans with access to and an appreciation of their own rich, shared and diverse historical, literary and cultural heritage through grant-supported outreach programs, family literacy and adult reading initiatives, teacher professional development institutes, publications, film and radio documentaries, museum exhibitions, cultural tourism, public lectures, library projects, and other public humanities programming.

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