I was on a dark path between the houses of the living and the houses of those who lived no longer. What I saw there, and who it was who showed me that place, I do not wish to say. I was in the middle of things, but could not keep silence. I was outside everything, men waited for my word, and I did not speak.
Writing notes for this essay, I thought: I will now command a pellucid American idiom. I will write about Clarence John Laughlin with the startling clarity of a certain ice-water spring I know on the flanks of Mt. LeConte in the Great Smoky Mountains.
Represented in this monograph are selections from many of the twenty-three groups of pictures on which I have worked since 1935; the groups now number over 17,000 sheet film negatives. The intent of this selection is to show the wide range of subject matter with which I have dealt.
The moon, descending her staircase of clouds in one of the "Petits Poèmes en Prose," enters the chamber of a newborn child, and whispers into his dreams: "Thou shalt love all that loves me,—the water that is formless and multiform, the vast green sea, the place where thou shalt never be, the woman thou shalt never know."
The Night of All Saints—a night clear and deep and filled with a glory of white moonlight. And a low sweet Wind came up from the West, and wandered among the tombs, whispering to the Shadows. And there were flowers among the tombs. They looked into the face of the moon, and from them a thousand invisible perfumes arose into the night.
Looking out into the clear blue of the night from one of those jutting balconies which constitute a summer luxury in the Creole city, the eye sometimes marks the thin black threads which the telegraph wires draw sharply against the sky. We observed last evening the infinitely extending lines of the vast web which the Electric Spider has spun about the world; and the innumerable wrecks of kites fluttering thereupon, like the bodies of gaudy flies—strange lines of tattered objects extending far into the horizon and tracking out the course of the electric messengers beyond the point at which the slender threads cease to remain visible.
This group, the earliest on which I worked, was begun in 1935. I started with no formal training at all as a painter or photographer, but with some background as a writer, and a vast background as a reader. Although this group originated in a desire to develop further an interest in composition (incited by the discovery of certain art magazines in the 1930’s) it eventually became involved in an urge to see how far my feelings about objects could be projected through the camera; and in the discovery of objects which could become clues to changes in the nature of American culture.
1905 Born August 14 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, of French and Scots-Irish parents. Lived on plantation near New Iberia, La., in the heart of the sugar-cane country. 1910 Moved with parents to New Orleans. 1918 Father died. Left high school after first year to support mother and sister.
New Orleans and Its Living Past, Houghton-Mifflin, Boston, 1941. Limited Edition with 62 gravure plates Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 1948. Reprint, Crown Publishers, Bonanza Books, New York, 1962 "Poems of Desolation," New Directions: 1941, New Directions Press, New York, pp. 513-520
Since 1935, Laughlin has had over 200 one-man shows in museums and university art galleries throughout the country. He has also designed and circulated five entirely different shows of his work—based on the 23 groups of pictures into which his work is divided—each using completely different material.
Some of the collections in which Laughlin's work is represented are: The Print Department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art The Phillips Gallery, Washington, D.C. The Fogg Museum of Art, Cambridge, Massachusetts The Pulitzer Collection, St. Louis, Missouri