Photographer Clarence John Laughlin documented the city’s historic buildings through the lens of “poetic perception.”
Born in 1905 in Lake Charles, Louisiana, self-taught photographer Clarence John Laughlin is best known for the experimental, often surrealist nature of his photographic work.¹ That many of these images captured his adopted home of New Orleans lends them special significance to those interested in the city’s historic architecture. Some feature buildings or cemeteries prominently, while others include them merely as backdrops, but taken together, Laughlin’s photographs document the changing city from the Depression through the late 1960s.²
In his 1948 book, Ghosts along the Mississippi, Laughlin documented forty-two Louisiana plantation buildings in varying states of decline; his text describes both the history of his subjects and his approach to photographing them: “From the historical and architectural facts … we must borrow the bones of our structure—this skeleton, however, can assume no significant or final reality till it is clothed in the flesh of poetic perception.”³ Laughlin lived for thirty-five years in the Upper Pontalba building on Jackson Square, and he developed his photographs in the basement of Edgar and Edith Stern’s Old Metairie home, Longue Vue.4 Laughlin continued writing and lecturing until his death in 1985. Today, The Historic New Orleans Collection is home to his photographic catalogue.
1. Leslie Gale Parr, "Clarence John Laughlin," in KnowLA Encyclopedia of Louisiana, edited by David Johnson (Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, 2010–). Article published May 6, 2011.
2. The Historic New Orleans Collection, “Clarence John Laughlin Photograph Collection.”
3. Clarence John Laughlin, Ghosts Along the Mississippi (New York: Bonanza Books, 1948 and 1961), prologue.
4. Gene Fredericks, “Clarence John Laughlin: Life after Life,” Preservation in Print, 41 no. 7 (October 2014): 20-22.
Suggestions for Additional Reading and Research
Lawrence, John H. and Patricia B. Schmitt, eds. Haunter of Ruins: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin. Boston: Bulfinch Press, 1997.
Meek, A. J. Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet without Honor. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.