The Artist as Collector: Clarence John Laughlin’s Massive Book Collection
With over 50,000 books in his collection, Laughlin had plenty of literary inspiration for his photographs.
By Katie Domurat, Coordinator of Museum Interpretation, High Museum of Art
Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin is on view at the High Museum of Art through November 10, 2019. This exhibition explores the work of Clarence John Laughlin, one of the twentieth century’s most important Southern photographers. Like his visually complex Surrealist works, Laughlin was multi-faceted. He had an array of interests, but one of his greatest loves was his ever-expanding book and print collection. He often proclaimed that, although he was a photographer, he was foremost a book collector.
Laughlin’s love affair with books began when he was very young, and some of his most recounted early memories were of visiting his local library in New Orleans. He once reminisced that his first trip to the library occurred around 1912 when he was either seven or eight. Laughlin would visit the library with his father. He began by first checking out all the fairytales. Once he had read them all, he moved on to adventure novels about superheroes and cowboys. As he got older, he began to delve into more serious nonfiction literature on a variety of scientific topics.
Laughlin was fascinated by the written word and started his own book collection around 1920. He served as his own librarian his entire life and meticulously sorted all his books into eleven different categories, each of which had many subcategories. Some of the categories included art, still photography and cinema, contemporary literature, fantasy and science-fiction, mental sciences, physical sciences, and sexology.
Laughlin acquired many books for his collection from the Strand Bookstore in New York City, which would open early for him when he was in town, and he would have the boxes of books he had purchased shipped back to his home in New Orleans.
Over his lifetime, Laughlin collected more than 50,000 books and 17,000 prints. Books were not merely a collector’s item to Laughlin: he read all the books in his collection and only purchased those he intended to read. He kept a tedious, running annotated list of all the books he read and when. Laughlin’s love for literature extended beyond his admiration for the written word into his creativity. He was greatly inspired by the many books he owned, and he used this inspiration to help dictate the kinds of photographs he produced.
Upon his death, Laughlin wanted to ensure that his library would remain as a resource for fellow artists and writers. It was important to him that others would continue to use his collection and that anybody could access it who wanted to. After his death in 1985, Louisiana State University purchased all the remaining volumes in the library. His book collection remains at LSU today, while most of his prints are now located in the Historic New Orleans Collection.
As for his artworks, the High holds one of the country’s most extensive collections of Laughlin’s photography. Come see more than one hundred of his works in Strange Light: The Photography of Clarence John Laughlin (on view at the High through November 10, 2019).