Clarence John Laughlin, the legendary “father of American surrealist photography,” was a puzzling character. His eighty year life spanned five wives and over 17 thousand photographs, but he remained puzzling long after his death in 1985. A native Louisianian and Nola resident, Laughlin was an irascible rebel who made a point of living in self-imposed isolation. But, as this deeply researched expo reveals, he was also quietly yet frequently in touch with many global art stars including photographers Edward Weston, Bill Brandt and Wynn Bullock as well as epochal French surrealists like Brassai, Man Man Ray and Andre Breton, who invited him to participate in the First Papers of Surrealism exhibition in Paris in 1942 and published his work in the legendary surrealist journal VVV. He exchanged letters and artworks with many, and this expansive survey pairs his pictures and missives with theirs in a sprawling yet highly personal exhibition that provides unusual depth and insight amid a wide array of images ranging from his most experimental to his most famous.
Featuring ghostly area landscapes with ruins that often resembled relics of ancient empires, his work often harks to surrealism's origins in fantastical 19th century visionaries like the great French Symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose parents were also Louisianians. An architectural photographer by trade, Laughlin's personal work explored old buildings as otherworldly vistas. The Superb Spiral, top, is a classic Creole spiral staircase that suggests entry into deeply chthonic realms, perhaps Hecate's cave, in an image reminiscent of Redon's darkly metaphysical compositions. Other works include montages of neoclassic plantation ruins like Elegy, above, that explore the mysterious cultural geography of a region where traces of other times and places often inexplicably turn up in mirage-like profusion. Even his documentary work can seem fantastical -- in Passage to Never Land, above left, a derelict peeling painting on glass, transformed by ambient light, glows as if with an inner life of its own. Laughlin never trusted others to comprehend what he was really up to. Shortly before his death he wrote, “I have opened the doors... on a new kind of reality... which has the scent and texture of melted dreams and the hues of soluble vision.” ~ Bookhardt / Clarence John Laughlin and His Contemporaries: A Picture and a Thousand Words, Through March 25, Historic New Orleans Collection, Williams Research Center, 400 Chartres Street, 523-4662.
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