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Review: Clarence John Laughlin, Louisiana’s surrealist photographer

Clarence John Laughlin and His Contemporaries: A Picture and a Thousand Words at Williams Research Center


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Clarence John Laughlin, the "father of American surrealist photography," was a puzzling character. His 80-year life spanned five wives and more than 17,000 photographs, but he remained an enigma long after his death in 1985. A native Louisianan and New Orleans resident, he was an irascible rebel who lived in self-imposed isolation. But, as this exhaustively researched expo reveals, he also was quietly yet frequently in touch with international art stars, including photographers Ansel Adams and Edward Weston as well as epochal French surrealists such as Brassai and Man Ray. He exchanged letters and artworks with many, and this expansive survey pairs his pictures and missives with theirs in a sprawling yet very personal exhibition that provides unusual depth and insight amid images ranging from his most experimental to his most famous.

  Featuring ghostly area landscapes with ruins that often resemble relics of ancient empires, his work harks to surrealism and its origins in fantastical 19th-century visionaries like the great French symbolist painter Odilon Redon, whose parents also were Louisianans. Laughlin was an architectural photographer by trade, but his personal work explored old buildings as otherworldly vistas. The Superb Spiral (pictured) is a classic Creole spiral staircase that suggests entry into subterranean realms, perhaps Hecate's cave, in an image reminiscent of Redon's darkly metaphysical compositions. Other works include montages of neoclassic plantation ruins that explore the mysterious cultural geography of a region where traces of other times and places often inexplicably turn up in miragelike profusion. Even his documentary work can seem fantastical. In Passage to Never Land, a peeling derelict painting on glass, transformed by ambient light, glows as if it has an inner life of its own. Laughlin never trusted others to comprehend what he really was 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."


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