New York

Clarence John Laughlin

Robert Miller Gallery

If they weren’t so suffocatingly earnest, Clarence John Laughlin’s photographs might seem funny. To the general public, Laughlin, who died in 1985, was best known for Ghosts along the Mississippi, his 1948 book of photographs of the moss-enshrouded ruins of the plantations of the Old South; in other work he plotted a more openly gothic course, depicting such themes as veiled women in graveyards and the like. At times his work seems to touch on the dreamworlds of Surrealism; in other cases it takes on the mock-scary quality of Walt Disney’s Fantasia.

What makes this situation all the more interesting is that, on the basis of the work itself, Laughlin couldn’t really tell the difference between the two tendencies. Beginning at least as early as the ’30s, when his work combined a Constructivist interest in form with the mysterioso leanings that would later come to the fore, Laughlin wrote short texts to accompany many of his photos, and then insisted that these texts be presented alongside the photos whenever they were exhibited or published. These texts serve both as captions and as commentaries, sometimes describing visual problems he was dealing with, sometimes providing a detailed iconography for his more blatantly symbolic images. Thus, he described Plunge, 1937, a László Moholy-Nagy-like photograph of girders receding into a cloudy sky, as “made to intensify the feeling of falling through space.” More typical was his annotation of The Unborn, 1941, in which a veiled woman holds up an ornate frame with a plaster mask of a child in its center: “Against a background of bareness, the woman with her neurotic hand and starved face becomes the image of the woman who wants children, but is unable to conceive a child. The small head expresses the unborn.”

Laughlin may have resorted to the device of captioning his work as a defense against criticism, or, more likely, to make up for the lack of criticism received by photographs during the years in which he worked. Whatever the reason, these texts reflect his clumsy eagerness to direct his viewers’ attention to the aspects of his work he thought important. Unembarrassed by the Modernist dictum that the photographer should “hide his hand,” Laughlin jumped right in with both feet and manipulated away, both through the captions and through his photographic technique.

In Moss Monster No. 1, 1946, for example, a tree hung with moss is silhouetted against the sky; not only does the caption explain the symbolism, but Laughlin has thoroughly burned in the sky to heighten the midnight-sun effect of the scene. In other cases he would use multiple printing to layer ghostly images together, just as Edmund Teske and other photo-surrealists of the day did, and as Jerry Uelsmann does today.

There’s a camera-club hokiness about a lot of this stuff, a feeling like that of William Mortensen’s allegorical manipulated photographs. But from time to time Laughlin’s unrelenting sincerity enabled him to come up with images that transcend conventional notions of the eerie, and that depict the twin obsessions of Surrealism, sex and death, with a startling authenticity. Because the scene is tightly framed and depicted in a strong raking light, it’s easier to read The Insect Headed Tombstone, 1953, as just that, than as simply a headstone with a curious heart-shaped wreath on top of it. Too often, though, Laughlin refused to trust the ability of his photographs to point beyond reality to the uncanny, and felt compelled to nail home the meanings he intended. In doing so he ignored the real mysteries of the process of transforming the world into photographs. For all his attempts to explain his pictures, many of them mean more than his captions so urgently insist.

Charles Hagen