Laughlin was born in to a middle class family in Lake Charles, Louisiana. His rocky childhood, southern heritage, and interest in literature influenced his work greatly. His family lost everything in a failed rice growing venture in 1910, and were forced to relocate to New Orleans where Laughlin's father took on a factory job. Laughlin was an introverted child with few friends and a close relationship with his father, who cultivated and encouraged his lifelong love of literature. Laughlin was devastated when his father died 1918, and his grief was compounded by a Priest's false promise that God would save his ailing parent if he prayed hard enough. This left Laughlin with a deep suspicion of religion that surfaces frequently in his work. He dropped out of high school in 1920, after having barely completed his freshman year, he was self-educated and highly literate. His large vocabulary and love of language are evident in the elaborate captions he would later write to accompany his photographs. His early aspiration was to be a writer, and he wrote many poems and stories in the style of French symbolism. He tried for many years to publish his work, but was largely unsuccessful. He discovered photography when he was 25, and taught himself how to use a simple 2 1/2 by 2 1/4 view camera. He began working as a freelance architectural photographer, then moved on to be employed by such varied agencies as Vogue Magazine and the US government. He disliked the constraints of government work, and eventually split from Vogue after a conflict with then-editor Edward Steichen. Thereafter, he worked almost exclusively on personal projects utilizing a wide range of photographic styles and techniques, from straightforward geometric abstractions of architectural features to elaborately staged allegories utilizing models, costumes, and props.
His work contains many elements of surrealism, which was more common in European photography at the time. Many historians actually credit him as being the first true surrealist photographer in the United States. Laughlin’s images are often nostalgic, he was influenced by Eugene Atget and other historical purists who tried to capture a vanishing urban landscape.
Laughlin himself was something of a luddite, preferring older photographic equipment, and showing little interest in new technologies as they arrived. He was friends with Edward Weston and corresponded with many other prominent artists of his time.
His best known book, "Ghosts Along the Mississippi", was first published in 1948.
Laughlin died on January 2nd 1985, leaving behind a massive collection of books and images.