Because it is time,
the eyes open, the body stands
up, the hand stretches out,
the fire is lit…
—André Breton and Paul Eluard
In his introduction to the retrospective exhibit of his work “The Personal Eye,” Clarence John Laughlin offers this theory to explain the artistic vision of his photographs of Louisiana plantations and of New Orleans: “the creative photographer should be able to put the stamp of his way of seeing on whatever material he touches…this means that the object in the photograph must be so treated, or so grasped…that the object does become personal—by acquiring meanings beyond itself” (Laughlin 13). Laughlin is an artist who draws upon the schools of Symbolism and Surrealism: he has interests in exploring how Southern iconography like plantation homes, stairs, and spanish moss are imbued with truths that extend beyond themselves; and, how these meanings have shifted over time to become haunted, through their neglect and decay, by History. It is Laughlin’s job as artist to capture both forces at work in such objects: “it is only when the photograph presents the object so that the meanings conveyed transcend the meaning of the object as a thing-in-itself, that photography becomes art” (Laughlin 13). How an object’s meaning might transcend itself is answered by Laughlin, whose Surrealist impulses understand reality itself more as sur-reality, meaning that what we know as reality and what we assume to be unreal are themselves not so readily distinguished; rather, they sift into each other. Laughlin sees this muddling of the two as happening through the play of light, with photography as the medium that is best equipped to capture its enigmatic work.
What about these transcendent meanings, then? Laughlin’s photographs, especially those in his seminal work Ghosts Along the Mississippi, are at once breathtaking and menacing. Through them, we are taken aback both by the majestic beauty of design and by the haunting discourses of Race and History, symbolized through images of overgrown nature and of decaying materials, that have chipped away at its power, that have dulled its elegance, that have pulled it down deep into the muck.
Spanish moss is an important symbol, and here we might consider it to be the force of discourses of Race and History creeping over the plantation. In this photograph of the decaying Houmas House, Laughlin’s moss becomes part of the elements adding to the home’s decay.
“The Magnificent Avenue” highlights a all-too-familiar sight: the grand alley leading to the facade of the column-lined plantation house at Rosedown Plantation. You will have to look hard to find it, though, because, having grown thick and wild, spanish moss has obstructed it from view. So has the light, which glows through the moss. In fact, it is the moss that welcomes us, and not the house itself; the house itself has faded into obscurity.
Classical statues are an important part of the plantation home. Their presence positions the home aesthetically line with relics of the past—in other words, the plantation home sought to become timeless. However, the end of the antebellum period brought these homes back down to earth and repositioned them back into a specific time and place. It’s time, in fact, had already passed by the time Laughlin came by to visit. This Classically-inspired bathing statue may once have been displayed proudly on an ornamental table or in a beautiful garden; now, it is tossed aside like junk into a bare wing room among beautiful, though now discarded, lamps. Yet the strange arrangement of lamps with the statue give her a new presence despite her lowly position.
In “The Dark Lady,” Laughlin uses double-exposure to make visible the haunted story of Myrtles Plantation. It is said that a number of figures ghosts the plantation to this day, including those of a murdered man, a wife and her children, and a mistress slave. Whether these stories are true or not, “The Dark Lady” summons the surreal power of storytelling to play tricks with what we may think is real and with what we think is not.
Through Laughlin’s photographs, we engage with the deeper truth of humanity’s hubris—that we dare to reach the gods, in this case through appropriations of Classical architecture and art incorporated into a particular way of living while simultaneously turning a blind eye to the cruel inhumanity of slavery.
Consider Rosedown: unique to it is a line of statues that circle and face the front of its house. Brought from Europe, these statues represent various continents of the world, including the broken-armed Indian above who represents North America. It is though Rosedown proclaimed itself as the center of the world; and then, through the statues, it is as though Rosedown sought to rise above the world towards the heavens.
Rosedown is not unique in its attempt to reach the gods. It’s all been done before: through the construction of pyramids, through the establishment of Divine Right to rule. Undoubtedly, it will happen again, if not now. To quote Rust Cohle from our new favorite TV show True Detective, time is a “flat circle” where everything that has happened and that will happen is all happening again and again forever and ever, like some haunting carnival joyride version of Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence.
And, indeed, hubris is the laughing hyena that rides by us in this “flat circle,” for we never learn from our attempts to transcend our very selves. We can never fully own the light and shake off the darkness that when considered wholly is, as Tennessee Williams describes, our natural, “animalistic” nature in “The Comforter and the Betrayer”:
The animal is the comforter and the betrayer,
for he has never seceded altogether from the kingdom of dark
that perpetual opposite of the state you live in.
He’s kept that shadow with him as part of his being,
bearing it with him contentedly, trustfully,
never glancing back at it, knowing its there. (lines 1-6)
Williams distrust of humanity here hits a nerve: do we not consider ourselves to be superior to, or detached from, animals—a rational animal, as Aristotle claims? Are we not living in an enlightened age where subsequent years bring with them progress?
Your stolen firelight, that lighted circle you crouch in,
is what he distrusts and shrinks from,
believing it should have been left
an uncontested mystery of the gods. (lines 7-10)
Williams’ lines are especially potent now: since Laughlin took these photographs in the mid-twentieth century, most of the surviving plantations have been restored and repurposed–Disneyfied–for commercial gain. Fresh, vibrant coats of paint breathe new life into the restored plantations and it’s grounds. The moss has been tamed; the gardens carefully sculpted. Tour guides, elegant wedding parties, cafés, and gift shops are now as much a part of the landscape as the moss itself. Everything is fully lighted, and it is all too much, all very, very queer to behold.
Gone is the rain of the moss, gone is the home’s decay. Everything is clean now and fresh, its upkeep done not by slaves but by state employees with an eye for detail.
Statues have also been restored: gone are the chipped noses and broken arms. In its place, freshly painted and polished statues like this one stand proudly along the estate, bathing in the light.
Oak Alley at Rosedown still bears proudly its spanish moss though now it has gained a handle on it. Whereas the overgrown, glowing moss haunted our way down Oak Alley in Laughlin’s photograph, the moss now has been tamed and manicured to provide visitors with a chance to stroll into a painting free from History.
If the exterior facade and grounds aren’t overwhelming in their own right, the inside of Houmas and Myrtles plantation houses arrest the viewer with their clean, symmetrical lines and use of color.
While these images splash with color the grandeur of antebellum plantation life, the darkness of the past remains in plain sight, though it too is splashed with a color so bright that it becomes absurd—kitsch, even.
The keepers of these plantation homes now keep History at a safe distance. Rather than engaging with its darker side, its tour guides privilege the grand aspects of plantation life over its darker features, with is instead acknowledged with brief, somber tones. We are shown the slave quarters, we are greeted by the “happy” slave butler boy statue; we are even shown the slaves’ private entrances and stairways; then, we move on to discuss inspirations for decor and architectural design before being moved towards the gift shop. The darker aspect of plantation life is not swept under any rug but it becomes a feature of its home and grounds as touristy as a view of the master bedroom or of the restored gardens. We don’t see stains or scratches among the homes nor among the slave quarters. Everything looks cute and photographable; a postcard waiting to be purchased with a message written on the back: “Wish You Were Here.”
…But the animal is
Not only your betrayer but your comforter.
Since he is faithfully waiting for your return to him
when you have nothing else to return to. (lines 20-23)
Despite the best efforts of these keepers to clean up the image of these plantations, Laughlin’s musings on these haunted homes and objects and the ghosts that emanate from them are not gone. No amount of polish and paint can truly sanitize their inherent meanings, their dark truths. Rather, one must look at it anew: instead of searching for decadence in moss-covered alleys, broken statues, and faded homes, one must see it in the vibrant colors, the polished statues, and the manicured gardens. One must see the darkness of the past reaching to us through its new lens. Freud’s theory of the uncanny is useful to help us understand what’s at work here: psychologically, something that is uncanny simultaneously attracts and repulses us. The uncanny is something that is familiar to us, if also repressed, that suddenly emerges to the psyche and becomes strange and threatening through our very encounter with this person or object. In this case, on one level, the uncanny is the play at work between our knowledge of plantations as decayed and those as restored; on another level, the uncanny here is the play between the darkness and light of humanity, between the estrangement of meaning from these restored homes an relics and the truth that yet remains.
The soft glow of light and the molding from the restored antique chandelier may be breathtaking at first glance but after looking at it long enough, the hues begin to bathe you in its growing, fiery light while the layered pieces of the molding seem alive. While the light itself becomes menacing, it does not dare touch the stairs that lead you to the abyss above, which contains the ghosts that are said to haunt Myrtles.
The light in “Bedroom” (2013) above at Houmas offers a similar, eerie feeling: the ghosts are not gone. They are, in fact, there now all around you. They have taken over the lighting, they are lying on the bed. They have also commandeered the colors, which do not welcome you in but keep you at arm’s distance.
A second glance at these pictures tell you that the ghosts are still everywhere. The slave servant boy of “The Happy Greeter” is very much alive, and he is very much happy to see you. The spiral staircase of “The Magnificent Spiral” (2013) is a labyrinth waiting to swallow you. The overwhelming presence of “Houmas House” suggests that it is not what it seems; that it, too, is alive. All of these objects are alive and waiting for you to return to them.
When you return to him
…he will lick the sensitive hollow of your throat
till it stops painfully throbbing,
he will lick the tips of your fingers with his slow, knowing tongue,
so giving you comfort,
While behind him, on the other side of his dishonestly sheltering,
quickly but easily panting, treacherous, warm flank
Is your natural destroyer whom he has always known to be there,
the dark that he has brought with him. Trust
this betrayer. He is your only comfort. (lines 24-34)
Being on the River Road—I mean, really Being in it (in a Heideggerian sense)—is to engage fully with these ghosts of our past. No matter how much they dress it up, we still encounter a past that is simultaneously exalted and shamed. We encounter symbols whose power lies just beyond our knowing. To enter the River Road is to enter a maze. No, to enter the River Road is to enter the Minotaur’s lair, with our own hubris as our destroyer. Through it, we ought to learn a larger lesson about human existence: its capability for such grandeur and inhumanity happening on the same plane, especially in its attempts to rise above itself. We ought to recognize that it is human nature itself that is decadent, that no matter what the setting, it is inherent in human nature to categorize and to place value judgments, to reason and to seek something higher than our base natures. History has shown numerous examples of this, from the construction of the Egyptian pyramids to the River Road itself. Wondrous and breathtaking though they are, these monuments to humanity come with such a cost. Still, though we aim higher and higher, the River Road reminds us that the darkness does not necessarily come from below but from above, too.