John Sevigny talks with me about his latest project Fiesta Brava
1. Can you talk a little about your artistic influences? Where do you draw your inspiration from?
I used to think of influences in terms of certain artists, movements or pieces, mostly paintings. In that sense I haven’t changed much. I was inspired to take pictures after seeing work by Diego Velazquez and Caravaggio. But I also like later artists like Richard Diebenkorn or maybe Anselm Kiefer. I don’t look at much photography because in terms of works people create, it hasn’t changed much in well over a century. Now I think of influences as things that happen in the world, in my life. It’s not so much that, say, ISIS kills 1,000 people and I want to make a photo dealing with that. It’s more about an internal dialogue and how I see the everyday world around me. Maybe it’s the Dada-Surrealist thing that “thought happens in the mouth.” Quite often I see something on the street and know in some instinctive way that it’s my picture. The one of they guy on crutches who has fallen down is one example of that. One click and somehow I got it.
2. You have a very large following on social media. Do you feel social media platforms like Twitter and Instagram has benefited photography, or perhaps made it worse by diluting good work with mediocrity and cliche?
Most of the art made at any point in history is very bad and a few pieces and artists rise up through the muck. If you look at Manet in 1865, \he was clearly the best painter alive. But the Paris Salon assholes had mixed feelings about him to say the least. So they exhibited post-Rococo crap and Manet set up his work in a tent outside, essentially inventing the solo exhibition. I am fortunate to have a following, which is reflected in the numbers on my social media accounts. There are definite advantages to working in the age of mega-digital communication. In the old days we carried around books of photographs hoping someone would see them. Now it’s easier to reach out and touch someone.
3. Whats next for Mr. Sevigny? What are you working on now, or planning in the near future?
I wish I knew. I have been so busy preparing for this Miami exhibition called La Fiesta Brava that I haven’t thought beyond that. I will certainly be making photographs and talking to people about them in the States, Latin America, and hopefully Europe.
4. What do you dislike about the art world?
I have learned from my friend, the artist Teresa Parker that not all of the art world is bad. The highest end of the market is corrupt, rigged, unintelligent and has very little to do with art at all. History will show that the auction houses, with their $100 million anonymous sales, is a den of money laundering, which of course funds human trafficking and a ton of other evils. This is obvious for a number of reasons but the main one is that all large quantities of money are dirty. On the other hand there is a much larger, more vibrant, more ethical art world, or rather, there are many art worlds. People like Stacy Conde, Teresa Parker and many others who have worked with me are proof of that. You have to create your own art world, work with the existing art world to the point that you’re not sponsoring slavery and the drug trade and try to survive.
5. What is your dream project?
I don’t have one dream project per se. I have a lot of small goals. For example, I’d like to photograph Rakim, the most important rapper of all time. But the hip hop industry is fucking strange. They want you to pay them to take photographs. That ain’t happening. There’s a singer from a band called Maldita Vecindad here in Mexico City who I’d also like to shoot. I have other goals that are impossible for the moment because the world has become so dangerous. There’s this enormous sprawling desert in the Mexican state of San Luis Potosi, which is now infested with narco-scum. When I was there years before the drug war the landscape just blew me away. The colors seemed to come from within the hills and mountains and they’re colors I’ve never seen before. I’d love to spend a few weeks photographing there but it will have to wait until history’s pendulum shifts again.
6. In the nearly 10 years since Ladies’ Bar was published, how has your work changed and how have you changed?
The spirit of what I do hasn’t changed. I am a better photographer now. I am probably a bit harder and a little more bitter but that’s about age as much as anything. I don’t trust the world as much as I did 10 years ago. I confronted a lot of violence while making those pictures and I swore I’d never do it again. I am no adrenaline junkie but I am always drawn back to places where I’m likely to get it in the neck. So I took similar risks in El Salvador. This will probably come back to haunt me but while I was making Ladies’ Bar, I fought with anyone who challenged me, who looked at me cross-eyed, who tried to stop me from taking pictures. In El Salvador I was basically passive with gang members. I never fought. I tried to keep everything smooth. And that was a mistake. Those people only understand strength and force. Salvadoran gang members are not quite as smart as pit bulls and twice as dangerous.
7. How are these photographs different from recent projects such as Happyland and Tropicalisimo?
They have more air, more distant, more sunlight. There is a dose of Surrealism that hasn’t shown up in my work before. There are fewer portraits. I feel like Happyland and Tropicalisimo were two sides of a coin. This is not like that at all. To make photographic metaphors, there’s more Eggleston here, that is if Eggleston was coming down off a meth binge, and less in-your-face, confrontation. There are a few photographs in this group that are absolutely eternal. If I were shopping, I’d be browsing at this work.
8. Why the title Fiesta Brava?
It’s a nice name for a bullfight, but I equate it with a battle for survival in a primitive setting. There’s a myth that we’re all civilized and it’s crap. We’re fighting tooth and nail to avoid starving to death, dying of some treatable disease or being murdered. That’s reality.
9. How does it feel to be returning to your hometown?
I have long had a love-hate relationship with Miami. But the hate part has faded over the years. It’s a lovely, superficial town of fake breasts, too much makeup and false appearances. Underneath, however, is something of great substance. Stacy Conde, owner of Conde Contemporary, is a third generation Miamian. My own father has a sculpture in the permanent collection at a university there and I have a photograph in the same collection. Whether I like it or not I have roots there. And in many ways it’s a great city. You just have to get past the real estate agents, brokers of every kind, and 10 percenters. I am actually quite happy to be going.
10. Is there any message you hope people will take away from these photographs?
I make intelligent pictures for intelligent people. A lot of intelligent art watchers have stopped going to openings and buying art because they’re tired of being insulted by stuff made for stupid people. There’s no reason to name names. Everyone knows who I’m talking about. But teenagers and college students who hate, say, that guy that cuts up sharks relate to my work and they buy it. They find the art of spectacle and gimmick insulting. You don’t have to be a genius to understand what I do but if you’re intellectually challenged you probably won’t get it. And that’s fine, too. People are afraid of art that’s about the real world which is why minimalist, fake conceptualism and bad ready mades are the order of the day. The only message is that I offer an alternative. It’s the difference between a Danielle Steel novel and something by, say, James Lee Burke or Steve Pottinger. What you buy says a lot about who you are. How much time you are willing to invest looking at a piece of art is a measure of your level of visual literacy.
John Sevigny is a photographer. See more of his work at www.gonecity.blogspot.com
Grassroots Tavern, New York