April 20, 2009

Clarence John Laughlin: Ghosts Along the Mississippi


Clarence John Laughlin, Magnificent Avenue, Rosedown Plantation (1835), 1946/7

Clarence John Laughlin’s Ghosts Along the Mississippi is a compilation of 100 photographs of Louisiana plantation houses. He has attributed his allure for these houses to two main reasons. The first is the “historico-architectural” value of these houses and the second is the “poetic value”. Historically these houses are interesting because they were nearly self-sufficient, and were designed architecturally with the climate and materials of the surrounding area in mind. Poetically, these houses seem alive, each possessing its own character or life force. They are anthropomorphic in their aging as well as in their character. Their walls crack and fade with time, just as the skin of a weathered face, their once strong walls and pillars begin to droop just as the worked muscles of an old man. Laughlin speaks of the interrelation of light and time and how these two elements are mainly responsible for the beauty of many of the houses.

Clarence John Laughlin, Elegy for an Old House, Woodlawn Plantation (1835-1839), 1946/7

Woodlawn seems to be a relatively simple plantation home. It is pleasingly symmetrical with two wings that protrude towards the camera. The tree to the left of the house adds much more weight to that side of the frame, however, it is somewhat counterbalanced by the surplus of hay flowing from the hollowed-out windows on the right. The two windows on the top floor are boarded shut, with the cross boards level with one another. The Spanish moss hanging from the tree seems to echo the hay herniating the windows. The scraps of corrugated metal atop the left portion of the roof emphasize the lack of a chimney on that side. The shadow being cast from the right wing of the house is due to the fact that this photo was taken “in an ethereal glowing sunset”. The presence of the tree and the hay in the windows coupled with the deserted background suggests that this house has been reclaimed by nature. The natural materials combined to produce this house finally allowed to return to their original forms after having been immured within. The cracks beginning to the left of the center of the house suggest a tremendous outward force, perhaps this force of nature’s imprisoned products breaking free of their man induced restraints.

The name of this photograph is Elegy for an Old House which seems to imply a note of melancholy. This implied note does not seem to be present in the aforementioned interpretation of this photo (one would assume the reverting of manmade products to their natural state to be a positive thing). Why is this an elegy? Perhaps because, although these materials are free to become “wild again” there is no one there to see this transformation take place. The photo preserves but a second of this transformation, yet it continues for long after the photo has been processed and printed for us to see and is probably still occurring as I sit writing. The picture is conspicuously devoid of any human life (not even a commonplace tire swing to be seen!). The wilderness behind the house is cut out of the frame and can scarcely be seen, it seems strangled off somehow by the house’s decaying frame.

--Jean-Luc Delafontaine


Clarence John Laughlin, Elegy for Moss Land, 1946/7

Ghosts along the Mississippi presents Laughlin's vision of traditional Louisiana plantation culture as it has evolved over changing times. The former grandeur of the massive, ornate, antebellum and neoclassical-style plantation houses is contrasted with their decaying facades. The once magnificent plantation lifestyle is only evident as a ghost within a dilapidated shell. The lighting is bright and the dark, dreamy Spanish moss seems to overtake the crumbling structures. Lichens and mold overcome weatherworn sculptures in overgrown gardens and against rotting walls. Darkly dressed, specter-like figures drift among the testament to a now-dead lifestyle, their shadows stark against the crumbling exterior. The constant struggle during life between natural species and manmade architectural forms concludes with the death of the plantation. Plant forms finally are able to grow, untamed, and in turn dominate the abandoned landscape.

Clarence John Laughlin, The Apparition, Woodlawn Plantation (1835-1839), 1946/7

Clarence John Laughlin, The Moss Weeps, Woodlawn Plantation (1835-1839), 1946/7

Elegy for Moss Land presents an amalgam of all of these elements. The double exposure of the decaying plantation house and the swampy landscape deliberately present the struggle between manmade and natural. The lone, Spanish moss-covered tree appears to even lift the house into the air in victory. The dark ghost of a woman underneath the tree appears to be diving off into the swampy abyss. Her head is bowed-even she realizes the grand, old plantation lifestyle is now only evident in the decay of its monuments. The way that Laughlin composes his scenes of growth and decay evoke a feeling of calmness and emptiness, even when there is much detail in front of the lens. The viewer does not feel like an outsider intruding upon someone’s livelihood, but as a part of the landscape: a natural witness to the almost unbelievable compositions of wood, stone and leaves. For a lifestyle that brought so much pain and injustice through the atrocities of slavery, Clarence John Laughlin presents the idea that the decay of such a way of life can give birth to an explosion of beauty.

--Amanda Greenstein


  1. The comparison between an old plantation house and an old man is fantastic. The analogy is very effective, especially when you look at laughlin's haunting photos.

  2. This photograph demonstrates how an obscure scene can be turned into something so captivating that it is almost beautiful in the eyes of the viewer. This scene of a decaying plantation also represents the oppression of the people that worked there and their emotions are depicted by the tone of this picture, which is murky and sad. This is a very interesting picture in which one can look at for a long time and always find interesting details like the incredible movement of the tree, which seems to be full of energy and anger over all the other objects like the house and construction aids that are just lying there abandoned and waiting to be demolished.

  3. It is interesting the parallels between this work and your own! I can see the influence.