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Past Exhibitions

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Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin

May 11–November 10, 2019

Dubbed “The Father of American Surrealism,” Clarence John Laughlin (American, 1905-1985) was the most important Southern photographer of his time and a singular figure within the burgeoning American school of photography. Known primarily for his atmospheric depictions of decaying antebellum architecture that proliferated his hometown of New Orleans, Laughlin approached photography with a romantic, experimental eye that diverged heavily from his peers who championed realism and social documentary. The exhibition surveys Laughlin’s signature bodies of work made between 1935 and 1965, emphasizing his inventiveness, artistic influences, and deep connection to the written word. The High began collecting Laughlin’s work in 1974 and Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin is the first major presentation of Laughlin’s photographs by the High Museum following a landmark acquisition of his work in 2015.

The more than one hundred works in this exhibition attest to Laughlin’s innovative approach and prescience for the future of the photographic medium. From allegorical social commentary, to expertly constructed narratives, to bizarre material experimentation, Laughlin’s effort to access a higher artistic potential for photography is evident throughout his career. His desire to push the limits of photographic possibility paved the way for generations of artists and the growth of the medium into a tool of magical potential.

“I tried to create a mythology from our contemporary world. This mythology—instead of having gods and goddesses—has the personifications of our fears and frustrations, our desires and dilemmas.” –Clarence John Laughlin

About Clarence John Laughlin

Clarence John Laughlin.Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) lived and worked in New Orleans, Louisiana.

A self-taught photographer, he is known for his haunting and surrealistic images of New Orleans and the Southern landscape.  He originally aspired to be a writer, but found photography when he was 25 and taught himself how to work with a view camera.

His first photographic work was as a freelance architectural photographer, and he went on to work for other outlets such as Vogue magazine and the US government, though he later left both in order to focus exclusively on personal projects.

Laughlin is often credited as being the first true surrealist photographer in the United States, and he is arguably the most prominent Southern photographer of the mid-twentieth century.

Friends and Influences

Clarence John Laughlin was forced to leave school in his early teens to support his family after his father’s untimely passing. Subsequently, his artistic education was self-directed and entailed extensive correspondences with fellow artists and a legendary personal collection of books. This gallery highlights several key artists in Laughlin’s artistic development and displays several of the catalogues he worked on obsessively during his lifetime.

painting

Clementine Hunter (American, 1886–1988), Melrose Plantation, ca. 1980, Oil on cardboard. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of John and Margaret Robson, 2012.251

Laughlin was instrumental in bringing self-taught painter Clementine Hunter to national attention when he photographed her for Look magazine in 1952. This picture shows Melrose Plantation, where Hunter grew up. Both of her parents previously had been enslaved in north central Louisiana. Hunter didn’t begin painting until later in life, but she started making dolls, clothes, baskets, and lace at an early age. Life at Melrose Plantation was one of the primary themes Hunter returned to in her artwork.

Joseph De Casseres, (American, 1921–2006), Clarence John Laughlin, 1968, Gelatin silver print. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase, 1978.49

In addition to communicating with some of the era’s most prominent artistic figures—including Alfred Steiglitz, Man Ray, and Edward Weston—Laughlin also formed close bonds with artists outside the mainstream, such as West Coast surrealist Wynn Bullock and New Orleans–based self-taught painter Clementine Hunter. Laughlin was as much inspired by the canon of photographic excellence as he was by artists who challenged notions of what could be accepted as fine art.

Woodlawn Plantation by Edward Weston.

Edward Weston (American, 1886–1958), Woodlawn Plantation, 1941, Gelatin silver print. Collection of New Orleans Museum of Art

San Francisco Bay Area photographer and Group f/64 founder Edward Weston was one of the earliest influences on Laughlin’s work. Best known for his still lifes, nudes, and landscapes, Weston pioneered an approach to photography that privileged sharp focus and a rich tonal range. In 1941, Laughlin and Weston photographed alongside one another for a few days in New Orleans as Weston traveled the South making photographs to illustrate a new edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Laughlin was Weston’s guide, taking him to some of his favorite sites of antebellum architecture. Both photographers produced remarkably distinctive images of the same locations in their own signature styles.

photograph

Minor White (American, 1908–1976), Found Sculpture, San Rafael Desert, Utah, 1963, Gelatin silver print. High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1992.350

Minor White photographed an anthropomorphic rock formation at close range. In so doing, he transformed a natural feature into a narrative. The photograph resembles two figures in an embrace rather than a simple rocky outcropping. Though they were often at odds personally and philosophically, both White and Laughlin employed a visually poetic approach to making photographs and encouraged readings of their work that followed a spiritual or narrative track. Yet their aesthetics were noticeably distinct: whereas Laughlin favored compositional complexity in the service of telling a story, White preferred a stark, minimalist style.

 

Press

Art & Antiques Magazine | “Through a Lens, Darkly”
GPB Radio, “On Second Thought” | “Spooky, Surreal, Southern: The Work of Clarence John Laughlin, ‘Father of American Surrealism’”
The Wall Street Journal | “‘Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin’ Review: Snapping Southern Gothic”
WABE-FM | “New Exhibition Highlights Father of American Surrealism”

Organization and Support

Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin is organized by the High Museum of Art, Atlanta.

This exhibition is made possible by

Premier Exhibition Series Sponsor
Delta logo.

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Northside Hospital logo.

Warner Media logo.

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters
The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot
wish Foundation logo.

Benefactor Exhibition Series Supporter
Anne Cox Chambers Foundation

Ambassador Exhibition Supporters
Tom and Susan Wardell
Rod Westmoreland

Contributing Exhibition Series Supporters
Lucinda W. Bunnen
Marcia and John Donnell
W. Daniel Ebersole and Sarah Eby-Ebersole
Peggy Foreman
Robin and Hilton Howell
Mr. and Mrs. Baxter Jones
Joel Knox and Joan Marmo
Margot and Danny McCaul
The Ron and Lisa Brill Family Charitable Trust

Generous support is also provided by
Alfred and Adele Davis Exhibition Endowment Fund, Anne Cox Chambers Exhibition Fund, Barbara Stewart Exhibition Fund, Dorothy Smith Hopkins Exhibition Endowment Fund, Eleanor McDonald Storza Exhibition Endowment Fund, The Fay and Barrett Howell Exhibition Fund, Forward Arts Foundation Exhibition Endowment Fund, Helen S. Lanier Endowment Fund, Isobel Anne Fraser–Nancy Fraser Parker Exhibition Endowment Fund, John H. and Wilhelmina D. Harland Exhibition Endowment Fund, Katherine Murphy Riley Special Exhibition Endowment Fund, Margaretta Taylor Exhibition Fund, and the RJR Nabisco Exhibition Endowment Fund.