ExhibitionsStrange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin
Past Exhibition

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.

The Bat, 1940

The Bat, 1940
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1981.93The Bat was modeled by Laughlin’s wife, Elizabeth Heintzen, posing in Metairie Cemetery in New Orleans. Heintzen stands as the mysterious central figure within the catacombs, draped all in black. Her head is hidden as she clings to the cracks in the walls at her sides. Laughlin described the symbols behind this piece: “In the abbey of make-believe, the image of hypocrisy appropriately appears concealing its head as with those who hypocritically hide their heads from the facts they don’t want to acknowledge.”

D6160u247616051981.93laughlin O2 1159x1480.jpg

The Enigma, 1941

The Enigma, 1941
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase, 75.76These tall Corinthian columns are all that remains of Windsor Plantation of Port Gibson, Mississippi. The home was burned first during the Civil War and then again mysteriously in 1890. The clouds above the columns form a question mark above the structure’s ruins. For Laughlin, this symbolized the unknown circumstances of the building’s demise. He wrote in the photo caption: “From the cores of the brick columns young trees sprout, the whole structure suggesting an incredible upsurge of Classical civilization, somehow completely lost in time and space.”

D6588u2476588975.76laughlin O2 1162x1480.jpg

Water Witch, 1939, printed 1940

Water Witch, 1939, printed 1940
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase, 1978.63Clarence John Laughlin’s most productive years encompassed a time of dramatic cultural, social, and political change across the United States, but particularly in the South. He began photographing during the Great Depression, matured as an artist in the years following the upheaval of World War II, and concluded his production in the wake of the civil rights movement. This period also coincided with the golden era of Southern Gothic literature, and Laughlin translated many of the narrative and metaphorical strategies common in the novels of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Conner into his “visual poems.”

D5983u247598371978.63laughlin O2 1100x1480.jpg

The Improbable Dome (No. 1), 1965

The Improbable Dome (No. 1), 1965
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Joshua Mann Pailet in honor of his mother, Charlotte Mann Pailet, her family, and Sir Nicholas Winton, 2017.427Architecture, particularly historic buildings, was a passion of Laughlin’s, and photographing it provided both his main source of income and an endless source of creative inspiration. Laughlin saw the decay and ruin of grand structures as a metaphor for the disintegration of society. Rarely satisfied with straight documentation, he frequently employed experimental techniques, such as double exposure, to insert ethereal figures into the scene and build a narrative or make an allegorical statement.

Db Photod8944u589894471.2015.22laughlin O2 1181x1480.jpg

Black Flames in the Sand, 1952, printed 1979

Black Flames in the Sand, 1952, printed 1979
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1981.84Among the twenty-three thematic groupings into which Clarence John Laughlin assigned his photographs, he dedicated several sections to specific common, everyday materials and objects: glass, rocks, metal, trees. He did not intend these depictions of the natural world, however, to be meditations or studies on the pure beauty of nature but instead meant for them to demonstrate the transformative potential of looking at a subject with an imaginative eye.

D6099u247609931981.84laughlin O2 1480x1134.jpg

Moss Fingers, 1946, printed 1947

Moss Fingers, 1946, printed 1947
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, bequest of the artist, 1985.99Hired by the Army Corp of Engineers to document the building of New Orleans’s levees, Laughlin used his spare time along the waters of the Mississippi River to photograph the abandoned plantation homes of the Old South. His eerie architectural images, which depicted these grand structures as crumbling ghosts of the antebellum past, were the first of Laughlin’s works to receive attention from galleries and publishers.

D6357u247635771985.99laughlin O2 1206x1480.jpg

The Ghostly Arch (#2), 1948, printed 1949

The Ghostly Arch (#2), 1948, printed 1949
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, bequest of the artist, 1985.109Laughlin began photographing plantation homes when he moved from Washington, DC, back to his native New Orleans after being discharged from the Army in 1945. Most of these abandoned symbols of the Old South existed in varying states of disrepair and were set to be demolished, which motivated Laughlin to preserve them through photographs. He and his wife, Elizabeth, made day trips to visit the plantations. They drove down desolate back roads, picnicking on the lawns of these once regal structures marked with no trespassing signs.

D6228u247622851985.109laughlin O2 1480x1162.jpg

A Living Glance Out of the Past, 1939

A Living Glance Out of the Past, 1939
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, purchase with funds from Robert Yellowlees, 2015.44Clarence John Laughlin’s ‘Visual Poems” offer allegorical commentaries on the culture and politics of the day, expressions of a deeply felt spiritual state, and often elaborately staged psychological narratives. Laughlin said of his aspirations for this work: “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.”

Db Photod1874u704187452015.44laughlin O2 1092x1480.jpg

The Octopus Tree, 1951, printed 1953

The Octopus Tree, 1951, printed 1953
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1981.69The Octopus Tree exemplifies Laughlin’s belief that photography could radically transform even the most commonplace natural forms into something fantastical. This is one image from a series of seven photographs he made of the same fallen tree, each designed to spin a unique story. Here, Laughlin framed the decaying tree from below so that it resembles a dead octopus floating on the bottom of the ocean, its tentacles thrusting out from the center branch. The cloudy sky above contrasts sharply with the darkness of the tree, increasing the visual weight of the slain octopus.

D5997u247599731981.69laughlin O2 1480x1169.jpg

Flowers of the Night Land, 1958, printed 1976

Flowers of the Night Land, 1958, printed 1976
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, gift of Lucinda W. Bunnen for the Bunnen Collection, 1981.86In Flowers of the Night Land, Laughlin tightly cropped a wreath of artificial flowers on a New Orleans tomb in negative. This technique encompasses the blooms in darkness and lends the image an ominous tone. Laughlin wrote of the transformative effects of his printing process: “Naturalistically, this print derives from a vertical transparency of a clump of artificial flowers hanging on the wall of a New Orleans tomb. But in the ‘transcendence’ which this print represents, every spatial relationship, as seen by the eye—as well as all the ‘normal’ meanings of the objects—has been completely altered.”

D6112u247611291981.86laughlin O2 1480x1202.jpg

The Abstract and the Ornate, 1935, printed 1981

The Abstract and the Ornate, 1935, printed 1981
Gelatin silver print
High Museum of Art, Atlanta, Purchase with funds from Robert Yellowlees, 2015.27From double exposures to collage to making photographs without a camera, Laughlin pushed the possibilities of photography to their technical limits. Throughout this gallery, Laughlin’s varied disruptions to the typical photographic process are fully demonstrated. Experimentation was quite popular in European art circles, while the American school of photography at the time was primarily concerned with the camera’s propensity for recording the “truth.” Laughlin’s stark divergence from this method put him at odds with the curators and artists who otherwise might have championed his more straightforward architectural images. Despite his outsider position for much of his life, Laughlin found great success in the 1970s and ’80s when artists and photographers began to embrace experimentation with the medium and favor of more expressive and abstract works.

D6378u247637812015.27laughlin O2 1140x1480.jpg

The Cave of Eyes, 1943 1945

The Cave of Eyes, 1943‑1945
Eastman Wash‑off Relief
Collection of The Historic New Orleans CollectionIn 1942, Laughlin enlisted in the United States Army. Only one year later he received a permanent station in the Office of Strategic Services (known today as the Central Intelligence Agency) in Washington, DC. While there, Laughlin experimented with the then-nascent process of color printing.He made these gestural, abstract images, which evoke unusual organic forms, entirely in the darkroom using a series of dyes and photo-sensitive masks. Laughlin wrote of these studies: “It will be noted that this technique produces a depth of color which is impossible with watercolor. Made up of strange, stormy, and violent skies, this figure has a peculiarly cyclonic quality.”


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.


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.

 Photograph of Clarence John Laughlin by Joseph De Casseres

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.


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.




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”

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

Exhibition Series Sponsors

Premier Exhibition Series Supporters

The Antinori Foundation
Sarah and Jim Kennedy
Louise Sams and Jerome Grilhot

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.