The Phantasmagorical Clarence John Laughlin

Just saw this marvelous tale at the Prytania Theater during the 2015 NOFF about local boy-made-good Clarence John Laughlin, known as the father of surrealist photography, writer and significant mid-century book collector.  It’ll make you want to pore through the collection at HNOC, check out this current exhibit and to purchase his book Ghosts Along the Mississippi. What I loved about the movie was the frank appreciation among his fellow artists for his talent, mostly accompanied by shrugs about his particular way of existing in the world. That regard from peers is quite poignant, especially when compared to the barely-hidden impatience of the curators interviewed or talked about in regards to his manner of interacting with them. It sheds some cruel light on the difficult lives that artists fashion for themselves when they rightly refuse to be in step with their times and are forced to fight against the process necessary to be “successful.” Throughout the movie, the words “enigmatic” and “genius” are heard as much as “irascible” and “difficult.” That might give you a clue. In cases like Laughlin, you can see how that protectiveness can become destructive to the person and to their legacy, and is illustrated by the alternatively hilarious and painful video interspersed of Laughlin and the creator of the documentary, Gene Fredericks, attempting (unsuccessfully it turns out) to get footage back in the 1970s of the artist talking about his book collection..

New media artist Dawn Dedeaux, also an extremely well-regarded New Orleans artist, captures him best with humor and sensitivity in her comments in the film. In essence, she says time marches forward unceasingly, but Clarence was always headed in the other direction….

…and that she’d love for him to haunt her as a ghost-I totally agree.

The many Laughlin photographs that Fredericks labored to get in the movie (bartering his videographer talents to offset the fees) give the viewer a stunning understanding of his artistic eye. Each photo chosen could easily have lingered on the screen for many seconds more to view them from corner to corner and then drawing back, to see the entirety…but as they say, if you like what you see, then buy the book. The text that Laughlin wrote to accompany each photo and the quotes in the film about artistic choices all seem quietly wise and necessary to understand his vision.

It seems to me that Laughlin could have only lived in New Orleans in the time that he did to become a great artist, but might have been happier at other times in history, even if it meant being a less realized artist. Especially if it was in those lovely days when fame was not a goal in itself and when having deep eccentricities and an uneven personality was not necessarily a deal killer to being deemed worthy of review or respect.

Even so-as one autodidact to another, I salute you Clarence.

About DW

New Orleans resident, writer, activist. Public market consultant.

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