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Clarence John Laughlin

Text from John H. Lawrence (editor), Haunter of Ruins

CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN'S DESCRIPTIONS OF HIS PHOTOGRAPHIC GROUPS

GROUP A: STILL LIFES

This group, the earliest on which I worked, was begun in 1935. 1 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 1930s) it eventually became involved in an urge to see how far my feelings about objects could become projected through the camera; and in the discovery of objects which could become the clues to changes in the nature of American culture. Thus, here, as in much of my work, there is a progression from the semi-abstract to the poetic.

GROUP B: MARINE FORMS

Though ships, originally, formed most of the material for this group - the photographer's attention, later, focused chiefly on objects involved with the mystery of the sea - and on the kind of "hyperreality" which the camera, alone, can create ...

GROUP C: TREE FORMS

This Group began in 1937; but much work was added to it from 1946 through 1960. Its emphasis was not so much on the beauty of natural forms in themselves, as on the mysterious realm where natural forms intermingle significantly and strangely with projections from the mind of man. This realm is related to the great and ancient kingdom of fantasy which forms the core of all the arts, and which extends in painting from Hieronymus Bosch through James Ensor and Alfred Kubin to come down in our own time to Paul Klee. Therefore in this group the trees become something more than trees - they become involved with the child's sense of wonder, and they become clues also to the special and personal associations with which we invest all objects. And thus the photographer, like the painter, is seen to be able, when approaching nature, to convey something of his own inner world while, at the same time, evoking some of the ambiance of mystery which surrounds all things, despite all our pretentious "knowledge."

GROUP D: EARLY INDUSTRIALISM

This group presents images of the gradual and confused impact of industrialism in the deep south.

GROUP E: METAL MAGIC

This group also saw its inception in 1936. It is concerned, in photographic terms, with the magnificence of steel, the strange and menacing magic of the contemporary world of metal forms - the amazing crystallizations of man's will and man's greed, in the objects of industry.

GROUP F: GLASS MAGIC

Glass is fascinating because it acts so variably and subtly with light: offers so may suggestions that so-called reality is not the simple thing we usually conceive it to be: that reality embodies many planes and many kinds of meanings. Too, it does many surprising things with space; and this group, begun in 1938, gives examples of this and, in addition, attempts to push further the magic quality which Eugene Atget, the amazing old French photographer, obtained in his photographs of shop windows of nineteenth-century Paris - pictures in which he went well beyond his own documentary approach.

GROUP G: FANTASY IN OLD NEW ORLEANS

This group, which is quite large, deals with the special and indigenous fantasy which appeared in many New Orleans buildings, and which is found in nearly all of the stone and iron forms of the New Orleans cemeteries. Nineteenth-century New Orleans had a physical and psychological background unlike that of any other American city. This special kind of fantasy appeared at one end of the scale in the unparalleled development of funereal art in the old burial grounds of the city; and at the other end of the scale (as a counterbalance, perhaps), in the wild fantasy of the Mardi Gras.

GROUP H: LOST NEW ORLEANS

In this very extensive group of pictures, begun in 1937, I attempted to isolate visually the authentic quality of the old buildings of New Orleans - those buildings which had neither been prettified for the tourist trade nor "renovated" for commerce: of those streets in New Orleans which were "lost" in time. The buildings were approached as psychological and poetic documents, rather than from the more narrow viewpoints of the historian and the architect.

GROUP I: SATIRES

Most photographers have never, except in a very superficial way, extensively used the camera's intrinsic ability to create biting satire against a society filled with many forms of hypocrisy and with countless forms of social injustice. But the very significant German photographer Hans Herzfelde (or John Heartfield) conclusive IV showed, during Hitler's rise to power, the camera I s great capacities in this direction. MY own efforts in this field are involved either with carefully arranged effects which attempt to transcend mere "contrivance"; or else exploit the accidental sardonic 'juxtaposition of objects.

GROUP J: THE IMAGES OF THE LOST

Group J deals with the people rejected by our society; it is the first group primarily devoted to human beings. But the people were very seldom photographed where they were actually found. Instead, a difficult method was used: a special background was selected for each person (often from places discovered previously) with the intention of making the background work, not only in terms of design, but in terms of a subtle revelation of the overall social situation of the person. The people themselves were not used as models - they were not posed - nor were they used as "sociological documents." The attempt was to treat them as individual human beings. The overall composition was determined carefully on the ground glass. But the exposure was not made till each person seemed to reveal himself by some spontaneous gesture or expression.

GROUP K: VISUAL POEMS

In 1940 I tried to push further the integration of the human figure with especially selected backgrounds which I had to some degree begun in "Group I: Satires" and "Group J: The Images of the Lost"; except that here the integration was not in terms of satiric intent, or of social revelation, but rather in terms of poetic concepts.

Many of these pictures are examples of the interaction of photography and literature, using either carefully arranged whole figures, or highly individualized portrait effects in close-up; but always with poetic emphasis. Some of the pictures started as literary concepts; for many years before I began photography I had been a voracious reader, and in about 1925 had begun to write. Many of the figures in this group create combinations of line and tone and mood possible only in photography, and show how the camera can evoke hidden elements in human beings as surely as does painting.

GROUP L: POEMS OF THE INTERIOR WORLD

I feel that this group represents my most original and difficult project up to this time. In it 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. By means of a complex integration of human figures (never presented as individuals, since the figures are intended only as symbols of states of mind); carefully chosen backgrounds; and selected objects, I attempted to project the symbolic reality of our time, so that the pictures become images ofthe psychological substructure of confusion, want, and fear which have led to the two great wars, and which may lead to the end of human society. Fear and desire have the deepest roots in us, and in the modern world their forms have become peculiarly sharpened and twisted. In releasing the symbolic contents of objects my intent was to present settings for the drama of the misery and madness of our time; to deal with the depersonalization of man, and the conditions leading to the rise of the authoritarian ideologies. But the pictures were not conceived in a coldly, conscious way. They were arrived at mostly by means of subconscious intuitions and compulsions; and thus they have a number of different levels of meaning. All this, in 1939, when this group was initiated, represented a new departure for American photography. Even now, in this country, the ability of the camera to deal with psychological reality, and to evoke symbols, has scarcely been touched. For those not interested in symbolism, these pictures can be seen in terms of their basic level of meaning, which is design in terms of light and dark. For those interested, a more complete discussion of the character and objective of this group can be found in Poetry Gallery Series magazine, no. 2 - a poetry magazine published by Harper Square Press, Chicago, 1968 -where a number of pictures from this series are also reproduced.

GROUP M: THE LOUISIANA PLANTATIONS

Group M deals with the architectural achievements of the last great non-urban culture of this country - the nineteenth-century plantation culture of the lower Mississippi Valley. But this is not entirely in terms of architectural recording, since it includes a number of pictures dealing with the atmosphere of houses, and with the poetry and the enigma of time in these structures from the past. Also, there are two subsections in this group; one dealing with the Negro country churches and the other with the swamp burial grounds where is found an extraordinary kind of folk art. The primary objectives of Group M are: (1) to outline the evolution of Louisiana plantation architecture from its origins under strong French provincial influence in the eighteenth century - to the onset of the Civil War; (2) to indicate how in the 1830s and 1840s a truly indigenous type of house appeared on the Louisiana plantation, which was unlike anything else in America, or in Europe, where the plan of the house grew out of the nature of the climate and of the materials.

Within this century, fire and flood, levee set-backs, the ravages of heat and dampness, and the neglect due to impoverishment, have all taken an increasing toll of the houses left from the great nineteenth-century efflorescence. Working against the accelerating tide of destruction, during the years 1939 to 194 1, and 1946 to 1953, 1 tried to rescue some of the tragic and poetic beauty of this architecture. Some of the more than 2,000 negatives resulting appeared in my second book, Ghosts Along the Mississippi with about 50,000 words of text.

GROUP N: FORMS OF TODAY

[This group consists primarily of buildings constructed after World War 11, usually photographed on assignment for the architect or contractor.]

GROUP 0: COLOR EXPERIMENTS

Since I believe that there are a great many more relationships between painting and photography than are recognized, or accepted, and since I further believe that these relationships do not necessarily involve the mere copying of one medium by the other, I have devoted some time to exploring the borderland between these two arts, primarily during the period 1943 to 1946 - the only time when the facilities for such exploration were available to me.

I evolved a number of techniques to accomplish this exploration: such as the use of watercolor and oil on photographic collages; the use of photographic dyes and ink on photograms; the use of photographic dyes and inks directly on mordanted paper (with or without a photographic image); also the use of washoff relief images on mordanted paper, but in unorthodox ways.

For some of these techniques I do not have names. But enough has been clearly done to indicate that all the technical discoveries in color photographic chemistry, etc., have esthetic potentialities which, as yet, have scarcely been touched.

GROUP P: ROCK FORMS

Since all the material in this small group was photographed in the west - and since the treatment of such material by such photographers as Ansel Adams has become so familiar and accepted - there was a strong temptation for the photographer to fall into the "Purist" approach.

A study of the pictures, however, should indicate that the photographer varies the character of his approach in accordance with what the nature of the subject matter suggests to his imagination. He has never tried to force one method of approach on every kind of material. He has always attempted to make these alterations in the use of the camera - subject, in turn, to the overall guidance of a personal vision.

So, even in this group, where it would have been so easy to use the accepted approach - he tried to do something more subtle; to incorporate "Purism" merely as a basis upon which to build his own special animistic and poetic vision - and thus project, through the material, meanings which "Purism" would not have been capable of.

GROUP Q: NEW ANATOMIES

In this comparatively small group, which began in 1951, 1 have tried to show that the camera can explore the plastic potentialities of the human body in just as real a sense as, for instance, Picasso has done in some marvelous drawings where he makes use of numerous kinds of distortion in recreating the body; although in these photos distortion is not the method actually used. Nevertheless we are presented with visions of the body which it would be impossible for the physical eye directly to see. The pictures go completely beyond the kind of 11 recording" function usually assigned to the camera, and instead of giving us the results of direct vision, give us far more - the hyper-real vision created by the inner eye in man - the poetic, desiring, and dreaming eye. Because of this, the erotic element becomes all the more intense. But due to the puritanical code dominating this country till recently, none of these pictures have ever been published or exhibited before. The basic quotation for this series is from Hart Crane: "New thresholds, new anatomies! " And the last half of this quotation is, literally, the subject for this group.

GROUP R: SCULPTURE SEEN ANEW

This group is devoted to showing significant sculpture - from all periods, and from all over the world. But the selections were made entirely from American collections, public and private. Because of the richness of American collections, and since there are over 1,700 negatives, the group eventually became a sort of visual outline of world sculpture.

The other main purpose of the group is to outline some of the methods (and there are quite a variety of such methods developed in these pictures) by which the camera can be used to interpret sculpture - to intensify the experience of sculpture beyond the direct experience of the physical eye.

The photographer has designed a very large show entitled "The Bronze Age to Brancusi" - based on these pictures. The show consists of over 700 images, on 105 panels, and opened up in the Detroit Institute of Arts in March 1957.

GROUP S: THE MAGIC OF THE OBJECT

It should be pointed out that Group S is the only one of the many groups I worked on which is entirely devoted to so-called commonplace objects. In this group I try to show how the photographer, like the painter and poet, can release a level of meaning from the most ordinary objects, which has nothing to do with their naturalistic meaning. The photographer, of course, does this through intensely personal vision (just as is true of the painter and the poet) and when this happens, what the photographer is really dealing with is what the human mind has projected into the object: the secret language of inanimate objects, the hidden images of man's hopes and Joys, his dreams and desires, by which he makes more human the inhuman world around him. Although most of these pictures use the "found" object, all the objects are, in a deeper sense, "we11 arranged," that is, lighting, composition, and other factors have been used, both consciously and compulsively, to make more manifest the hidden meanings these objects have for the sensibility of the photographer. But, aside from all this, many of the objects in these pictures can be truly, considered part of the iconography of our time.

GROUP T: THE MYSTERY OF SPACE

This group is involved in showing how the photographer can deal with space problems in as real a sense as the painter, but without the help of color: how, for instance, the camera can collapse space (i.e., make a three-dimensional object look flat); or multiply space (i.e., make a two-dimensional object look three-dimensional). Also, this group indicates how the camera can semi-abstract objects; and create significant space illusions, as well, by exploiting the difference between physical space and visual space.

GROUP U: AMERICAN VICTORIAN ARCHITECTURE

Over 5,000 sheet film negatives were made for this group over a period of twenty years. The pictures were made in such cities as Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, Salt Lake City, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Galveston, and San Antonio, and many of the pictures are involved with the special feeling of certain houses and with the spirit of American places. Among the objectives of this group were (1) to show that the 1880s and 90s were probably the most important period architecturally in American cultural history; (2) to show why a new evaluation of American Victorian buildings must be made; (3) to discover important new architectural material from this period, not in the books; (4) to show that the American Victorians had made some very important discoveries, Mostly by intuition, in the highly significant field which can be called "psychological functionalism" - which enabled them to understand the supremely important roles of fantasy and decoration in architecture in a manner far beyond anything we are capable of" - and led to many of their houses being far more human and livable than ours; (5) to show that it was little-known Victorian architects who first broke with European architectural traditions, rather than such people as Sullivan and Wright.

GROUP V: VINTAGE PRINTS

[This group of varied material contains the very early work of the photographer. Many of these pictures were subsequently assigned to other groups.]

GROUP W: FANTASY IN EUROPE

Even in Europe, just as in the United States, the late nineteenth century seems the period most ignored. So when I reached Paris for the first time in October 1965, and realized the incredible riches of photography that could easily be found on almost every,, street, and also realized my limited time, I quickly determined to restrict myself to the 1880s and 90s. It was in this that I discovered my roots; it is this period which is closest to my heart; because it is this period which was the most deeply involved with the tremendous importance clothe fantastic in human lives, and the primacy, of the needs of the human imagination. And, of course, as always, but especially, here, I found more material than I could possibly cope with; so that I ran out of both time and money. But I hope to go back, and, ultimately, to do a large show on this marvelous city, whose streets have nurtured so many, poets, whose atmosphere is the mother of the creative spirit.

In time I also managed to get to England, where I was fortunate enough to be able to do a set of pictures of the peerless Brighton Pavilion.

[N.B. Descriptions for Groups N and V in brackets were supplied by the Historic New Orleans Collection.]


 


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