I recently had the privilege to interview John Sevigny, the highly regarded artist, photographer and teacher. John’s work has been widely exhibited in the United States, Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador and beyond. John agreed to answer a few questions in this short interview.
(Q)How long have you been a photographer?
That depends on how you define the word. My father, who was a painter, sculptor and general eccentric, started putting “folder” cameras in my hands when I was like two. I have no idea whether I actually took any pictures during those rather early years . I do know I made my first darkroom print, of a picture I had taken, when I was 11 or 12. But it wasn’t until about 1998, when I was working as a writer for a newspaper on the Texas-Mexico border, that I really invested myself in the idea of picture-taking. I was covering a lot of interesting stories and seeing a lot of new, intense things and I thought I might want to photograph them, to be able to look back at them later. It felt like the world was moving very fast, as it does when you’re young, and photography let me slow down for moments to look at the “scenery.”
(Q)What brought you into the field?
Going back to what I mentioned above, I’m kind of an outsider. I never studied this. I suppose constant exposure to art and images as a child was a big factor. Dad was an artist so we were constantly tripping over these huge canvases and sculptures at home. I remember him showing me a book of Matthew Brady’s photographs when I was probably too small to be looking at fields strewn with bodies. A lady around the corner, a dear family friend, was a wildly, talented painter. I tried to paint for a while but that didn’t work out so well. Then I was a writer. I was good at that but I found it pretty grueling. Thinking with a grin on my face that maybe photography was a last resort after having tried everything else.
(Q)What is your primary income stream?
It would be nice to have just one. Given the “new” economy, everything is fractured. I sell prints, books, do university lectures, give workshops, beg, borrow and steal to stay alive
(Q)How long did it take you to establish your position as an artist and teacher?
I don’t know how to put a date on when I became “established” or if I even have. When I started working primarily at taking pictures, and often writing about them, in about 1999, there was a definite shift in my life. Things have accelerated a lot in the past five years. But it’s still too early to declare victory, I think. It’s important to mention that moments of success and moments of being completely anonymous are both double-edged swords. When I had never exhibited anywhere, and was just wandering around Miami or Mexico taking pictures, I was as happy as I am now. I was also hungry for attention, frustrated and completely ignorant about how to share my work with people. Now, I feel satisfied that good people have seen my work and approve of it, but it’s not so free and innocent. I recently said to someone very close to me, “Whatever happened to just walking around town taking pictures?” It was a nostalgic comment and it make me a little sad. My mindset has changed and I’m now a little trapped in a cycle of photographing, traveling, exhibiting.
(Q)What do you believe have been the key factors in your success?
It’s that thing Hemingway says, and I’m paraphrasing, about how you have to last. About half of this stuff is luck and half is just sticking around long enough to figure out how to get around the obstacles that the “industry” so gleefully puts up to keep emerging artists of any age out of the competition. But even working 1,000 years wouldn’t help if the pictures weren’t special. I am very fortunate to have a group of people, scattered all over the place, to whom my pictures are very important. Someone like Steve McCurry makes tons of money and has millions of “fans” for whom his work is somewhat important. But I’m a lot more fortunate because I have this incredible support network of loving, dedicated, wacky, intelligent and fascinating supporters who really know about each of my photographs and really follow what I do. Very few of them, for whatever reason, are photographers.
(Q)Have you altered your career trajectory along the way?
Really only once. I worked for the Associated Press in Mexico for a year and hated it. I literally left in a fury of profanity and slammed doors. My story ideas were censored or just smothered at birth and the people I worked for, although very successful, were arrogant and mediocre. At least one of them, a well-known photographer, was an outright thief. So I left with the idea that somehow I could take pictures I wanted and survive at the same time. Since then I have had to work at other things, like teaching English, but I have not gone back to press work and hopefully never will, particularly not at the “high end” of journalism, which is a nest of vipers and egomaniacs.
(Q)On a personal level, do you have any long term goals?
I want to do a project on the coast and the tropics. I’m from Miami, but I didn’t grow up on Atlantic beaches, but rather, in the inglorious mangrove swamps, teeming with strange animals and stranger people, along Central Biscayne Bay. Over the years, in seeking out a word or label to identify myself, I’ve come to think that I’m primarily a coastal person, and there are certain things that coastal people have in common. We’re open. We curse too much. We tell dirty jokes. We go shirtless all the time because of the heat. We tell stories and good-natured lies and measure time with strange rulers like hurricane seasons, mangrove harvests, and tides. It’s a project I could do almost anywhere because the themes are the same, from the Pacific Coast of El Salvador to the Gulf Coast of Texas.
(Q)I know your an avid film shooter, but due to the scarcity of film in Mexico were forced to shoot digital. Has this had any change on your thoughts about the whole “film v digital” thing?
To me, clean, full-frame digital photography still looks very plastic and cold. It has no inherent flaws and therefore no inherent identity or beauty. I can make digital “work” to some degree but I am a romantic and would love to go back 15 years to when I could buy and develop Kodachrome at the drug store. Nevertheless I have to confess that owning nothing but a digital camera and a laptop is wonderfully convenient.
(Q)What advice would you offer a photographer interested in pursuing your career type?
Get whatever camera you can. You’ll suck at the beginning but you’ll get better. You don’t need to take a class. Read photo magazines and Web sites. Basic camera operation is not that complicated and you should be able to work through it in a few years at most. Then photograph whatever you want, and ignore what the market or other people tell you to photograph. Don’t fall into the trap of becoming a photographer for “the market.” If you can avoid that, you become an artist and not just someone who happens to have a camera or a nice set of studio lights. You really don’t need much. Cartier Bresson shot with just two lenses. Helmut Newton used Nikon FMs and 50mm lenses for fashion magazine shots. A basic, DSLR and a really good prime lens are enough to do almost anything. Work from the heart, mind and eyes, not so much the camera. Somehow you will survive if you stick with it