Like French photographer Eugène Atget, who is inseparable from his vast and loving portrait of the city of Paris, Clarence John Laughlin (American, 1905-1985) is closely identified with his photographs of New Orleans. While working as a photographer for the U.S. Engineer Corps from 1936 to 1941, documenting levee projects on the Mississippi River among other projects, Laughlin captured the city’s architectural heritage through images of its mausoleums, antebellum mansions, and other distinctive buildings. Eventually, he came to view architecture as the ideal union of nature and culture and therefore as one of the highest and most significant creations of mankind.
Laughlin’s New Orleans images form the core of The Secret Life of Buildings: Photographs by Clarence John Laughlin, on view in the Julien Levy Gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art from December 17, 2005 – April 30, 2006. The exhibition is drawn from the Museum’s collection of more than 250 photographs made by Laughlin in Louisiana, across the United States, and abroad between 1940 and the mid-1960s.
"Laughlin used architecture as a point of departure for his own poetic explorations of human psychology," said Katherine Ware, the Museum's Curator of Photographs. "Many of his pictures of abandoned, decaying structures have a haunting quality that the artist heightened with shadows or shrouded figures to suggest an atmosphere clouded with layers of history and memories---their 'secret life,' as Laughlin once wrote. His wonderfully poetical titles add another element of suggestiveness to the works and reflect the artist's interest in the writings of French Symbolists such as Arthur Rimbaud and Charles Baudelaire."
The Levy Gallery provides an appropriate context in which to show Laughlin’s photographs, as it was Julien Levy who first introduced the artist to the New York art scene in a November 1940 exhibit. Laughlin was as devoted to the architecture and atmosphere of old New Orleans as Atget was to Paris, so it is no surprise that Levy paired the two photographers. Levy’s exhibition announcement listed two series of photographs, “Lost in New Orleans” and “Poems of Desolation.” Laughlin’s photographs reveal his engagement with the artists he admired and several pieces are titled to acknowledge his debt, including homage to Swiss painter Paul Klee, and the multiple-exposure Atget Fantasia.
Born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, the self-taught Laughlin is best known for his elegiac volume Ghosts Along the Mississippi, published in 1948, which records the decaying manor houses of the antebellum South. Early in his career, Laughlin documented levee projects on the Mississippi River for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, contributed fashion shots to Vogue magazine and worked with the photography department of the National Archives in Washington, D.C. At the conclusion of World War II, he photographed contemporary architecture for magazines and architects, remaining active as a photographer until 1967, writing and lecturing on the art of photography thereafter. He produced a remarkable body of work amounting to 17,000 negatives, in general employing view cameras. His Camera As Third Eye exhibition was first shown in 1946 at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, displaying some of the finest examples of his surrealistic vision of New Orleans. A major retrospective of 229 photographs was held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1973.
Housing some 150,000 works of art, the Department of Prints, Drawings and Photographs at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is nationally recognized for the breadth and depth of its collections as well as the flair and scholarship of its exhibitions. The Department presents rotating installations of its vast holdings in the Berman and Stieglitz Galleries and the Julien Levy Gallery on the Museum’s ground floor and the Eglin Gallery on the first floor. Individual works are also on view in the Museum’s permanent collection galleries. The Museum will present a major exhibition surveying Levy’s personal collection of photographs in June-September 2006.