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Marigny District, New Orleans, 1982
photograph by Jonathan Williams
 
CLARENCE JOHN LAUGHLIN

This is the last time I photographed Clarence John, back of his house in the Marigny District of New Orleans. Must have been about 1980. He was diminished by his infirmities and had become hooded and shadowed.

One of the best pieces I’ve ever written about anybody was about Clarence, called “The Shadow of His Equipage.” It was the introduction to Clarence John Laughlin (The Personal Eye), an Aperture monograph, 1973. It is also reprinted in my essay book from North Point Press, The Magpie’s Bagpipe. It follows.

CJL’s 17,000 negatives, hundreds of prints, much of his library, are contained in the archives of The Historic New Orleans Collection, 533 Royal Street in the French Quarter. The expert curator is the photographer, John Lawrence, who loves to talk Clarence and knows what he’s talking about. It is interesting to remember that Clarence considered himself a writer first, a book collector second, and a photographer third. His ability to find magic in obscure texts was as preternatural as his insight into the secret life of objects and dwellings.

Upon his request, Clarence John Laughlin was buried in Père-Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. I will go there someday, eat a beignet, and drink a sip of Wild Irish Rosé, that hideous wine he so perversely favored, a memory from his Cajun boyhood near New Iberia.


THE SHADOW OF HIS EQUIPAGE


Writing notes for this essay, I thought: I will now command a pellucid American idiom. I will write about Clarence John Laughlin with the startling clarity of a certain ice-water spring I know on the flanks of Mt. Le Conte in the Great Smoky Mountains. But, it can’t be done. Clarence is all phantasmagoria and gumbo—Archimboldo, The Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Grandville, Belle Grove Plantation, the Wizard of Oz, and skillet cornbread. Bizarrerie is what you’re having for dinner. Be my guest; eat what you like and leave the rest for Genius Loci.

Item: People to Talk About the Next Time I See Clarence: Virgil Finlay, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Boosie Jackson, Abe Merritt, Henry Dorsey, Atget, Robert Barlow, Simon Cutts, Bill Brandt, Carlos Toadvine, Balthus, Jess Collins, Enid Foster, Henry Clews, Edgar Tolson, Hans Bellmer, Lord Berners, Frederick Sommer, James McGarrell, Redon, Richard Dadd, Russell Edson, Scott Joplin, Joe Tilson, Bart Parker, Beatrix Potter, Clarence Schmidt, Baron Corvo, Baron Von Gloeden, Baron Von Pluschow, Robert Barnes, John Furnival, Ivan Albright, Mervyn Peake, Gallé, Mackintosh, Robert E. Howard, Geoffrey Grigson, Barbara Jones, Guy Mendes, James Broughton, Squire Waterton, Raymond Isidore, Delius, William Hope Hodgson, Magritte, William Burges, Count Orsini, L. Frank Baum...

Item: Places to Talk About the Next Time I See Clarence: The Villa Lante; La Maison de Picassiette; Grandpa Bissett’s Shell-Garden; the Park of Monsters at Bomarzo; Levens Hall; the Pleasure Ground at Stourhead; Koerner’s Folly; the Watts Chapel at Compton, Surrey; the Dentist’s Junkheap at Rockingham, North Carolina; the house covered with 20,000 rubber boots in Sacramento; Olana; Seizincote; the Royal Pavilion; the Garden of Eden (where was it: Tarzan, Texas?); the Henge at Roswell; Bibleland USA; the Blocher Tomb; Carnac; Castello Balduino at Montaldo di Pavia...

Clarence John Laughlin was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana, in 1905 and later lived on a plantation near New Iberia. He remains as volatile as Tabasco sauce, walks twice as fast as anyone else on earth, and looks like Frank Lloyd Wright with just enough of the ventriloquist’s dummy in Dead of Night to make it spooky. For there is certainly something preternatural about Clarence and bis ability to unearth mysteries with his camera. I feel confident that you could head CJL down that street of drab, ordinary, public housing in Charrres, and his psychic antennae, like a dowser’s rod, would point to La Maison de Picassiette, whose mosaic’d wonders are hidden from plain view.

He is the Master of Ignored Ghastliness, of the Eldritch, the Psychopompous, the Metamorphic, the Mephitic, the Fearsome, and now and then of Trumpery and the Fulsome. Purists and the mean in spirit have regarded him with disdain for almost forty years and have ignored him as being in the same league as Carmen Cavallero, “The Poet of the Piano.” Well, if you’re going to put titles like “Starlight in Steel” and “And Tell of Time... Cobwebbed Time” and “The Vials of Wrath Have Opened,” then you’re going to have trouble. No matter.

The crux is this: Clarence John Laughlin has the right to be as “corny,” as cosmic, as bumptious and excessive as he likes. A black writer commented recently that most American white folks were a bunch of nobodies trying to be somebodies. Clarence is Clarence. Amen. There is no one else in the history of photography who has his feeling for the animate life of architecture. No one else has given us records of “Old Milwaukee Re-Discovered,” of Victorian Chicago (“Phoenix Re-Arisen”), of Salt Lake City, Lake Geneva, Eureka, Los Angeles, St. Louis, Memphis, Little Rock, Minneapolis, San Jose, San Francisco, San Antonio, Galveston, Cripple Creek, and castles in north Texas; of the Zenon Trudeau House, Ellerslie Plantation, Belle Grove, Afton Villa, Windsor Plantation; and, above all, of the buildings of New Orleans and the rural cemeteries of Louisiana. When Laughlin works on Chicago, you don’t just get the Rookery Building, you get the mansion of “Bet-A-Million” Gates on South Michigan; you get Sullivan’s Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church; you get the John G. Shedd mansion, and the Samuel Nickerson house with the great Tiffany glass dome. There have been over zoo exhibitions of his work, and there are now over 17,000 cut-film negatives.

Baudelaire, writing of Edgar Allan Poe, remarks “Nature makes a point of bestowing a special vigor of temperament upon those of whom she expects great things, just as she gives a rugged vitality to those trees whose function it is to symbolize grief and mourning.” This immediately made me think of Clarence John Laughlin, amazing the inhabitants as he pushed his wheelbarrow full of view cameras and film through the streets of Paris at fifteen miles per hour, headed for the next miracle of the Art Nouveau or the Moreau Museum. And that makes me think of le Facteur Cheval and his legendary brouette (wheelbarrow), filled with suggestive stones, headed back up the lane in Hauterives for the next additions to his Ideal Dream Palace. Clarence could have built the Palais Idéal twice as fast as the Postman. A man who is All Eyes (“and two feet that couldn’t be beat,” as Jelly Roll Morton used to say)—if you get in the way of the Vision, the wheelbarrow runs over your foot.

Laughlin belongs to that breed of men who live in shells as resolutely as the tortoise. Who are they? Hermits, on the whole. The one at Stourhead in Wiltshire lost his job because he got caught sneaking out to the pub. Sylvester Houédard, the Benedictine monk of Prinknash Abbey, is a current anchorite. No one can imagine Sylvester making his way in the trackless world. William Blake said to someone: “I live in a hole here, but God has a beautiful mansion for me elsewhere.” Edward Dahlberg lives in miserly tenement rooms, out of misanthropy, bile, and necessity. Kenneth Patchen always lived in a Walt-Disney-enchanted wood, surrounded by milkmaids and visionary emblems. He was caged by spinal injuries like a heavy cat. Ian Hamilton Finlay lives in the Pentland Hills; his agoraphobia keeps him always at home or fishing when it gets dusk in a loch of his own making near the house. Laughlin is afraid to leave his attic in the Upper Pontalba Apartment Building on Jackson Square in New Orleans—fire might destroy the negatives and his library. H. P. Lovecraft only went out at night. But, he had to be especially careful, for if it was too cold in the streets of Providence, he might faint. All these men are burrowers, scratching further and further inside themselves, for whom the world at large is a terrible menace.

In all the time I have been looking at Laughlin’s photographs (I acquired Ghosts Along the Mississippi in 1948 and met Clarence in 1958 in New York), I have hardly ever read, or heard, or written a sentence on his work that bears notice. I still think the best statement was a very brief one written by Weeks Hall in New Iberia, Louisiana, in 1941. Weeks was an artist of the same plantation-house milieu as Clarence John Laughlin. He had for his carapace one of the great architectural masterpieces of the United States: The Shadows-on-the-Teche. To save his house from being turned into the asphalt parking lot in front of some tax-shelter shopping center, Weeks sacrificed his public life and his career. He was the last member of his family and he lived long enough to insure the preservation of The Shadows by the National Trust. You can get a glimpse of Weeks Hall in Henry Miller’s The Air-Conditioned Nightmare, 1945.

Weeks was an aristocrat, an excessive, a man with friends like Arthur B. Carles, Sherwood Anderson, and Gertrude Stein. He called himself the Last of the Nigger-Lovers. He hated modern, oil-producing, racist Louisiana, so he retired behind his cane fence and the live oaks and stood guard in his undershorts, with his cane and his bottle of brandy. “Get out of here, you goddamn silly women,” he’d yell as another busload of garden-club ladies would rattle the gate and try to violate his privacy. He cared for no one local except his two black manservants, Clement and Raymond. However, he still bore affection for Bunk Johnson, the cornetist, who had worked in the gardens at The Shadows before Bill Russell bought him the famous false teeth and lured him back to music and fame up North in his old age. Weeks would sip his drink up on the second-story balcony. Bunk would sneak his out there in the boxwoods while he cut and trimmed. “Play your horn, Bunk!” It is quite a vision to imagine—these two lonely old men reeling around to tunes like “Panama” and “That’s A-Plenty” under the Spanish mosses of that dark green, sacred place. It was Weeks who got the local priest to bury Bunk secretly in the Hall family plot. Bunk had said to him: “Mr. Weeks, please don’t let them bury me with them field-niggers—I couldn’t stand the cane dust and mule fans.”

Maybe I shouldn’t go on so about Weeks Hall, but there is a story to be told and nobody seems to tell it. Somewhere in my things are many hours of tape, which unreeled as we sat in the night on the balcony at The Shadows with little silver cups of coffee, with crystal sugar, drinking brandy. He was a glorious raconteur and he had more insight into Clarence John Laughlin than anyone:

The direction of his talent has fortunately been succored by its environment. His city wears an air, confirmed and expressed by its Carnival, of fantasy sobered always by thoughts of mortality. His New Orleans is also the Paris of Meryon, the Bermuda of The Tempest, and the Brussels of Ensor. His achievement consists in the fact that these prints are not photographs of these places and these things, but are photographed symbols of his thoughts about them....

The text of most essays on photographers are a waste of everybody’s time. ... There is nothing, under present conditions, that can he more easily and exactly reproduced than a technically good black-and-white photograph, and it is utter rot to burden those interested in them with irrelevant biographical trivia and per long-winded theory. Other photog raphers are interested only in mechanical procedure in so far as the maker of the prints explains what creative genesis led up to the use of that procedure. Prints themselves are what count. So, enjoyment must be in seeing; and, as enjoyment must be the result of experience, it is no more possible to substitute a dozen paragraphs for that experience than it is possible to substitute the text of Brillat-Savarin for a well-roasted capon.

That is expressed with great charm, with great accuracy. Since I am now sitting on an Umbrian hillside, the best thing I can offer Weeks amongst the Shades is a glass or two of red Torgiano. He was a man who cared about the best a place could produce. So, of course, he recognized Laughlin’s visionary talent and knew what had nourished it in those bayous so far from the outside world.

Clarence has been quite frank in saying that he thinks I will misrepresent his true position in this discursive introduction of mine. He also suspects that Aperture will err in its selection of the photographs for its monograph on him. “I especially want it made clear that I am an extreme romanticist—and I don’t want to be presented as some kind of goddammed up-to-the-minute version of a semi-abstract photographer.” No fear, Clarence, no fear.

CJL’s worry is that nobody in life sees what he’s up to. He, being All Eyes, is surrounded by sightless, pathetic materialists and abstractionists who do not understand. Though I venture to think he’s wrong, he’s the guy who has had to work in a quagmire for forty years, with never enough space, never enough time, never enough money, and never enough serious interest. The brewery next door to his apartment shakes the building; he has to carry developing trays on a bus across New Orleans and use a borrowed darkroom; the grant he finally got after years of begging was 25 percent of what was really needed to do the work. And so he writes statements like “The Personal Eye” and “The Camera As a Third Eye,” in which he talks about “the mystery of time, the magic of light, the enigma of realiry”—precisely those abstractions that have nothing to tell us of the luminous, exact images that he alone gives us. Kenneth Patchen used to feel the same way. Here he was, the authentic W Blake of Niles, Ohio, and none of the establishment lunkheads knew it. Then he’d invent terrible blurbs by people from nether Belgium with names like Pierre-Henri Charcuterie that said: “This sad and gentle hermit of the American Desert,” and so on and so on.

May Zoroaster and Daguerre keep me from avuncular chiding that hardly becomes one of my years. CJL deserves to be named a national treasure, for who has done more to record and salvage and cherish an America that has almost been destroyed in one generation? I think he works harder, against more stupid obstacles, than any artist I have ever met. The blind spot of this man, who is All Eyes, is that he won’t trust us. It’s hard on one’s vanity to be around Clarence. I’d known him more than ten years and one night after a poetry reading in London he said, blandly, “I hadn’t realized you were a serious poet.” There’s not a malicious bone in the man, so you can’t be offended, just bemused. You can invite Clarence to a particularly good dinner at a friend’s who prides herself on her clarets. Clarence will say: “I hope you don’t mind if I put sugar in the wine? I was brought up on a plantation in Louisiana where we drank blackberry wine and that’s the way I like it.” All one can do is say: “Why, of course, Clarence, have two spoonfuls if you care to.” I’m not telling these tales out of spite, but to indicate that CJL has work to do and his own notions. He is the despair of cooks on an intemational level. Abstract photographers have been known to flee Chicago when they heard he was coming in by train.

All Eyes, devoted to the visions. Clarence has no vanity and this is what allows one to remember to surrender one’s own for a while. You don’t breakfast at Brennan’s when you visit CJL’s attic suite atop the Pontalba in the Vieux Carr~. Once a week Clarence buys a box of comfiakes, a carton of milk, some sugar, and some tea bags. Tea is made by putting a tea bag in a cracked white mug under the hot-water tap. Lunch is a poorboy sandwich from the market. Dinner isn’t Galatoire’s. It’s another poorboy sandwich, if he remembers to bother, as he prowls through his library in search of an image by Bresdin or Ernst.

A green corduroy jacket is as familiar to CJL’s friends as the Postman Cheval’s wheelbarrow that he worked with on the Dream Palace for twenty-seven years, and some walking shorts that allow Clarence to propel himself down the yellow brick roads of the earth at speeds previously unimagined. Clarence has things to see and work to do. Hang in with him, or give up in despair. “That poets [using the word comprehensively as including artists in general] are a genus irritable is well understood.” Baudelaire, on Poe, again. “The poetical irritability has no reference to ‘temper’ in the vulgar sense, but merely to a more than usual clear-sightedness in respect to wrong, this clearsightedness being nothing more than a corollary from a vivid perception of right—of justice—of proportion.” Why spend money on food and drink when there are remaindered copies of a book on Redon you could buy up and present to many friends?

You can spend four days with CJL in the famous attic and only get to see seven prints. Each one is likely to require hours of briefing as Clarence clutches it to his bosom, smiles patiently, and explains that the mysteries are about to be revealed at long last. I once heard him go through his spiel in New York City for seven nights running. The invention of the tape recorder was unnecessary. Not a note, or a nuance, or an aside missed or misplaced. “I call this one: ‘Feast of the Dead in the House of Iron Beyond the Gardens of Ultima Thule.’ “I keep telling these stories both as a warning and as a request for a modicum of charity. Clarence is a shy man, over and over forced to leave his shell behind him and to sing for his supper. The public side of him can be incredibly overweening, if you insist. Us intellectuals mostly smile and roll our eyes and implore: “Clarence, please, may we see the photographs?” The answer is no. You are not going to change CJL one iota. You’re not going to get Ivan Albright to title his pictures like Josef Albers; or get Edward Dahlberg to eat tinned ham; or CJL to drink Sancerre Sauvignon. One either learns to laugh at oneself and at one’s friends, or the world is a hideous place, full of affronts, in which one is never comfortable. Laughlin’s photographs—even the ones I consider the worst, with the veiled figures and the snake oil—are part of congeries—a world in which he must be allowed his head and his reach.

Debussy asked Satie after the premiére of La Mer how he liked it. The first part is titled “From Dawn to Noon on the Sea.” Satie replied: “I liked the bit about quarter to eleven.” Satie was another “funny” man, with his twelve velvet suits and his white celluloid collars and a pile of unopened mail under his bed of twenty years duration. But Milhaud and Poulene and Debussy and Ravel loved the music. A man who has done as much great work as Clarence John Laughlin deserves our respect, our love, and our indulgence. Who are we, who don’t have such distinguished and memorable foibles, and hardly one-tenth of his accomplishments? Think of the odds he has fought against—a lotus-eating city with only Lafcadio Hearn and Louis Moreau Gottschalk to lend it high-culture distinctions before CJL. The name Gottschalk has currency today only because it is the name of a department store. Since Laughlin has been the recipient of hardly any local attention, for decades, it’s not surprising that he wouldn’t bother to know the difference between Al Hirt and Kid Thomas Valentine. (I first went to New Orleans in 1949 to hear George Lewis, not to seek out the mysterious CJL.) You’d need a skin as thick as a carapace to survive in that Delta miasma. Bruckner got so addled and lonely amidst the baroque backwaters of St. Florian’s abbey that he began counting leaves on the linden trees. Clarence gets on the local bus named Desire and goes across town to see the latest double bill of grade-Z horror films, hoping against hope for the fifteen seconds of visual magic that only he will recognize for what it is. What lengths he goes to. Not us folks— we who know so damn much and have stopped looking for anything beyond the American dream of color television, new money, and the violence it takes to make it.

Since Charles Baudelaire was one of CJL’s starting points, back in the 1920s, I thought all kinds of light might be shed if I ransacked the Frenchman for his insights into the imagination. Not particularly. True, one will find a few sentences like the following: “The whole visible universe is but a storehouse of images and signs to which the imagination will give a relative place and value; it is a sort of pasture which the imagination must digest and transform. All the faculties of the human soul must be abandoned to the imagination, which puts them in requisition all at once.” But then, one will encounter the critic of the Salon of 1859 fulminating against the dread craze, Photography:

Let it rescue from oblivion those tumbling ruins, those books, prints and manuscripts, which time is devouring, precious things whose form is dissolving and which demand a place in the archives of our memory—it will be thanked and applauded. But if it be allowed to encroach upon the domain of theimpalpable andthe imaginary, upon anythingwhose value depends solely upon the addition of something of a man’s soul, then it will be so much the worse for us. . Each day art further diminishes its self respect by bowing down before external reality; each day the painter becomes more and more given to painting not what he dreams but what he sees. Nevertheless it is a happiness to dream, and it used to be a glory to express what one dreamt.

How odd it seems, now, for Baudelaire to be so blind to the “mechanical” similarities between a piece of wood with animal hairs clustered at one end to hold pigments, and held in the hand; and a contraption of wood, metal, and glass, held in the hand, to focus light for things without or things within the artist’s imagination.

Laughlin’s best statement is: “The limitations of photography are nothing more than the limitations of photographers.”

Baudelaire’s: “Others enough will speak the jargon of the studio and will exhibit themselves to the detriment of the pictures. In many cases erudition seems to me to be a childish thing and but little revealing of its true nature. I would find it only too easy to discourse subtly upon symmetrical or balanced composition, upon tonal equipoise, upon warmth and coldness of tones, etc. 0 Vanity! I choose instead to speak in the name of feeling, of morality and of pleasure. And I hope that a few people who are learned without pedantry will find my ignorance to their liking.”

Poe, in “Ligeia,” quotes Bacon: “There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.” This, at last, is the final rallying cry of the Romantics. Mae West, oracular to the end, would dare to say it a little too amusingly to suit Clarence, when she says to her dwarf: “Honey, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet!” Where the Lady stops, nobody knows. Give Clarence John Laughlin an object—the chances are exactly the same. It’s a brand new ball game, fans, and we’re going into extra innings.

Polgeto, Umbertide, Perugia 1973

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