John Sevigny: “If you don’t read you will never be a photographer”

by María Magdalena Ziegler

Entrevista John Sevigny Interview
John Sevigny (Foto: Nelson Dueñas)

John Sevigny is a photographer who is not (just) a photographer. So to speak, he has even declared that “photography must die”. He praises Goya and thinks literature should be the starting point of all art expressions. Here’s the interview that helped me unveil his artistic mindset.

Nowadays, photography is in the hands of almost everybody. Beyond that fact photography is the craft behind the quickest reflexes an artist could ever have. Thus, to have the talent to recognize beauty, suffering, fear, hypocrisy, courage, strength or weakness in the blink of an eye and capture it with a sense of art is something not everybody has nowadays. There is the quid.

With almost 20 solo exhibitions in a year, John Sevigny -a Floridian with a beautiful link to Latin America- has shown his photographs in the past 12 months all over from Wisconsin to Guatemala. He talks about art with an assuring attitude and shares without pettiness.

MMZ: Did you choose photography or did it choose you? How did it happen?

JS: For reasons I don’t entirely understand, my father was putting cameras in my hands starting when I was three. He was a painter and sculptor. So in a sense, it wasn’t something I chose. That said, I picked it up again when I was 12 and later in my twenties.

I did try to paint and was barely accepted to art school in Miami, but I didn’t go. I think I really dedicated myself to photography after seeing work in books by Diego Velázquez, Zurburán and Caravaggio to a lesser extent.

Diego Velázquez, “The feast of Bacchus”, 1629, Museo del Prado, Madrid.

Indeed, the Spanish master Velazquez made such an impression on him at a very young age. The Feast of Bacchus (1629) was the painting that

“…hit some nerve in my soul that I didn’t even know existed before. It has something to do with the dark, mysterious, sarcastic realism of the piece. There are some angels and other things in the composition, but what really drew my attention were the faces of these drunk Spaniards. They were obviously real people that Velázquez had seen, and they were hardened, funny, tragic, and everything else that drunks tend to be. Literally from that moment on I knew that if I could tap into the force of that kind of portraiture, I would be able to die happy.” (1)

JS: My father’s paintings and those of a family friend named Edith Landowne also pushed toward an Expressionist approach to making pictures. I have to add that after choosing photography I spent my time wandering around taking pictures nobody cared about. Those were my 40 days in the desert. I am humbled that people like gallerist Fred Snitzer in Miami, Jose Bedia, Roger Ballen and Dore Gardner pushed me to continue. They probably don’t remember it but I hung on their words.

MMZ: If you think about art as an experience (which begins with the artist’s creative process and ends with the viewer aesthetic experience), how do you evaluate your own art experience?

JS: You’ll forgive me for answering with a question but it will illuminate the way I see this. In photography, when is the creative moment? When you take a picture? Or when you see it on a computer and choose one over the other? I’m not sure. I’d add that I never think about how viewers will react to a picture. Generally, if I do it right other people will like it (if “like” is the right word). But there are exceptions. Some of my favorite pictures are ignored at gallery shows. And some that I’m not particularly sure about are very popular.

Sevigny is a very critical man and he is not afraid to address strong words even about his own craft (Photography). As an artist in his own merits, he understands how art develops. In the midst of a very visual world, he expresses:

“The 21st Century photographer can learn more studying the collected work of Claude Monet, Francisco Goya, Jackson Pollock, or Anselm Kiefer than by aping the photographic vocabulary force fed to us.” (2)

There is no way to escape a group photograph, the selfie temptation, or the-meal-in-the-table banality these days. But Sevigny points out clearly:

“If we want the medium of photography to grow, or even survive, we have to stop thinking about cameras and start thinking about art.” (3)

MMZ: As a photographer, which art expressions (cinema, comics, painting, etc) have influenced your artwork and how?

JS: Painting and literature. I confess that I pay very little attention to photographers. I admire many – Roy de Carava, Miguel Rio Branco, etc. But I’m moved by painting more than photography. The Abstract Expressionists are a huge influence along with color field painting. But there are other non-photographic artists including Teresa J.Parker, America’s most powerful printmaker. If you haven’t heard of her, you will. Her work seems to take up where the Chicago imagists left off and brings it back around to Goya or Kollwitz.

Words are even more important, particularly poems and short, powerful short stories. Joolz Denby is a British writer and artist who I am no longer in touch with. Her work, though, remains a big part of who I became as an adult. Steve Pottinger is a wonderful British poet whose name will be a household word eventually.

Then there are the giants. Hemingway is out of style because feminists and liberals reject writing about being a man. But his short stories, brief and powerful, taught me that bigger is not better. You can say a lot or show a lot with small pieces of art. Juan Rulfo does the same for me, as does Garcia Lorca. I love Garcia Marquez, particularly when you explore his relationship to Faulkner. But those two authors don’t really find their way into what I do.

I would say as I do to my students that if you don’t read you will never be a photographer. Art is about new ideas and almost without exception new ideas start in books, not in art.

But Sevigny has also straightforward feelings and ideas about famous names in the History of Art. He has been nurtured by looking critically to images and not being afraid to confront the great masters. But it is Francisco de Goya who has enlighten him the most.

“Picasso was a painter, and remains perhaps the best known painter of all time. But Goya was a liberal, belonged to no artistic school, and was as interested in Enlightenment thought leaking out of Europe as he was in art. He condemned torture, willful ignorance and corruption while working away under the Spanish crown, a kind of contradictory behavior that seems impossible in today’s grabasstic art world.”(4)

Goya dog perro
Francisco de Goya, “The Dog”, 1819-1823

There is a painting by Goya that he values especially. It isn’t one of the so called masterpieces hanging in great collections. It is a dark painting popularly called The Dog (1819-1823). It is part of Goya’s Black Paintings (Pinturas Negras). About this intriguing painting he has said:

“It is a quirky, brightly colored work, almost a cartoon. Polish it up and enhance the colors and it might be taken for a Miro. But this is a deadly serious work that depicts a near-drowning dog, swimming against a cresting wave the color of dried blood beneath a fiery yellow sky. The animal is doomed, soaked and fighting to survive. It contains almost no illusions of depth. Flatness as a positive attribute of Modern painting, which Goya can be said to have pioneered, did not otherwise arrive in the arts until almost a half century later. What frustration was Goya expressing when he attacked the walls of his home with brushes and paints and created this simple masterpiece?”(5)

But his delight with old masters does not alienate him from the harsh reality we all live in these days.  Photography is a massive expression today. There is no need of a lab now as there was 30 years ago. But we should not lose perspective and Sevigny asumes a solid position concerning Photography, but also as a citizen.

MMZ: In times of fake news, which part do you consider photo journalists should play to prevent false image to go a round social media? Is there an advice to the public about it you would like to share?

JS: Fake news is Trump’s attempt to brand something that’s always existed. I will say I am shocked at the shamelessness with which some photojournalists set-up or digitally alter photographs. I have seen it done by colleagues. At the highest levels World Press Photo has lost all credibility because it has awarded so many faked photos. My advice is DON’T. This is not about awards or even photography. It’s about dignity, honor, pride and sincerity.

Sevigny Guatemala
John Sevigny (Guatemala City, 2017)

MMZ: I know you have a close relation to Latin America, what colors should always be in the perfect photo of the Latin American you cherish?

JS: My relationship to Latin America begins in Miami. I worked in the art section of Miami’s biggest library when I was a kid and there I discovered Siqueiros and the other Mexican muralists. O studied Cándido Portinari, Wifredo Lam, Francisco Toledo and many other painters.

Regarding color, I’m a little uncomfortable with the idea that Latin American art is about color. You can certainly make that case. But in my mind what ties Latin American art together, from Dr. Atl to Bedia, Kahlo and others is humanism, not anything esthetic. Unfortunately young Latin American artists are ditching humanism and aping contemporary, conceptual work from the United States. It’s conceptualism without concepts.

Going back to color the most highly regarded Latin American photographers worked in black and white: Salgado, Sergio Lerrain, Tina Modotti. This is a good moment to mention Luis Soto, a great Guatemalan photographer who is about to publish his first book.

John Sevigny, “Serenata”, 2006

MMZ: What has been the hardest thing you have photographed ever? Why?

JS: Taking a picture is never hard in the way that making a painting is hard. You press a button. Most of the time it doesn’t come out right. Sometimes it does. A lot of the difficulties come from geography, lack of money and access. One picture comes to mind, though. I am a bit impulsive, as everyone knows. I was at a bar in El Salvador and thought, You know what? I’m going to find Manlio Argueta, the legendary Salvadoran writer, and make his portrait. I took a cab to the library he runs and found him. He was great. But I just couldn’t make the picture work. The light was wrong, his body language never quite worked, and anyway I’d come directly from a bar. I didn’t come away with a single good picture.

Sevigny has been interested in social issues for a long time. He has expressed:

“Social justice is something that all people, everywhere, are interested in because all of us want to be treated fairly. That said, not all artists choose to allow those kinds of themes to enter into their work. I think I was very naive when I started doing this. I assumed that all artists were interested in the human condition. It took me a long time to learn that a lot of people – particularly in photography – were far more interested in money, fame, attention, or other things. That said, I think that artists who only deal with social issues are very boring – just as boring as people who only paint flowers or only photograph landscapes or only work with nudes.” (6)

In fact, how immigrants are treated everywhere is always in his focus and he makes it clear:

It seems to me that people are naturally nomadic and have always moved around to find better fields to harvest, better jobs, more money. To try to regulate the flow of people in and out of a country is one thing. To criminalize it is simply wrong.(7)

MMZ: Name one photography from other artist that you could set as essential to the history of photography and tell me why?

JS: It’s hard to name one. Robert Frank’s image of the segregated street car in New Orleans – with the reflections in the upper windows – would seem to link Eugene Atget’s surrealism with late 20th Century documentary traditions. Korda’s iconic photograph of Che Guevara – a horrible monster of a man – is nonetheless a critical portrait. I’d have to mention Steve McCurry’s Afghan woman.

MMZ: If you could be remembered just for one photography from your portfolio so far, which would it be and why?

JS: Probably this one but there are many.

John Sevigny
John Sevigny (México City, 2016)

His photographs of not so common subjects, of those who someone could called “the underdogs”, are certainly not conventional but truthful. In times of the deceiving and the fake, it is a rare occasion to find images taken with honesty, sincerity and without false pretensions. Sevigny has described his own photography and he left no place to any misunderstanding about it:

“The three words that I use a lot to describe my photographs are dark, mysterious, and gritty. I also try to make photographs that are beautiful but not in the obvious ways.” (8)

John Sevigny is a very active photographer who is not (just) a photographer. He teaches, he speaks out, he reads the masters and praise the talented. He would never be satisfied with the obvious in his road to an increasingly more spiritual search of the universal in all of us.


You may also like to read: Why art & books always go first / History, a reflection on its craft

3 thoughts on “John Sevigny: “If you don’t read you will never be a photographer”

  1. Pingback: Johnny Gavlovski: “En los ojos del David de Miguel Ángel está mi respuesta” | ars.vox

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