Praise for Prophet Without Honor

A Clear Look at Photographer Laughlin
By John Sledge
Note: This article originally appeared on April 15, 2007 in the Mobile Press-Register

He was by turns domineering, opinionated, tedious and fussy, but he was also undisputedly a genius. New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin (1905-1985) may have been difficult to like, but his life and significance as a surrealist American artist have long deserved competent analysis.

Happily, this has now been provided in Clarence John Laughlin: Prophet Without Honor (Mississippi, $30) by A. B. Meek, professor emeritus of art at Louisiana State University and the author of several previous books on cultural matters. In 200 pages of footnoted text, Meek presents an unvarnished but balanced and deft overview of his prickly subject, a man once hailed as "Edgar Allan Poe with a camera."

Luckily for this project, Laughlin left an enormous collection of prints, negatives, articles and correspondence. "The sheer volume of the Laughlin papers is enormous," Meek writes. "In the history of photography, I know of no one, except perhaps Ansel Adams, who produced more than Laughlin." Meek quotes from these papers extensively, as he should, for Laughlin thought long and deeply about his craft and was vitally concerned with how future historians would evaluate him. Meek is right to question Laughlin's positioning of his work, however, writing that what he "had to say about his photographs ... seems at times to defy historical analysis."

Meek heightens the reader's interest with 40 well-chosen black-and-white illustrations, including reproductions of Laughlin's stunning photographs and, most touching, a shot of the septuagenarian master at rest in a Magazine Street gallery, looking anything but cantankerous.
But as Meek makes abundantly clear, Laughlin was pig-headed to a fault. He could not resist long political tirades when invited to speak in university settings, alienating audiences that were prepared to like him. As one observer wryly remarked, "He was not his own worst enemy, but his own assassin."

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