Photographer Richard Sexton is this year’s recipient of the Michael P. Smith Memorial Award for Documentary Photography (buy tickets here for the 2014 Humanities Awards). We spoke with Richard about his career and his upcoming book, Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, scheduled for publication by the Historic New Orleans Collection in April.
LEH: Can you recall the first time you used a camera?
Sexton: The very first camera I photographed with was an old Kodak Holiday Brownie, which I still have. It belonged to my parents. I found it laying around the house and announced I wanted to take some pictures with it. There was no film in it and when we went to the drug store to buy film I was disappointed to learn that color film was too expensive. So, I ended up with black and white. I remember photographing my grandmother and my cousin who was visiting, along with some random things around the house. I was probably only about 8 years old when I used the Brownie. A couple years later, for Christmas, I got a Polaroid Swinger, which had just been released and was all the rage. It was a cheap, hip camera. That’s the first camera I took a lot of pictures with and I loved the fact you could see the pictures right away.
LEH: You’ve said in the past that you like to consider yourself a storyteller and a raconteur. How do these roles shape your work as a photographer?
Sexton: Storytelling is the primary thing I’m about as a photographer. I’m a photo essayist. Each photograph is relatively easy to create, particularly compared to realist painting, or sculpture, or so many other media. I’m interested in how many related photographs can be combined and sequenced to tell a bigger story than any one photograph alone could do. Whether it’s for a book or an exhibit, I like to use a body of related work to tell a story. Storytelling also gives a purpose to my photography. I never just wander around with no idea in my head struggling to find something interesting to photograph. I usually have a purpose in mind before I even leave the house, let alone take my camera out of the bag. Also, I prefer to be focused on my story and my subject and not the achievement of some sort of style or “look” to my photographs. I just try to get the clearest, most highly detailed and revealing images I can. I choose either black/white or color based solely on what is appropriate to the subject. My style as a photographer is based on what I choose to photograph, the kind of front and center vantage point I favor, and a languid quality. My photographs are always languid.
LEH: Your new book, Creole World, will be featured in the Spring 2014 issue of Louisiana Cultural Vistas. The book explores architectural similarities between the Carribean, Central America and New Orleans, but also reflects the parallels in our societies and ways of life. What did you learn in the process of compiling this collection?
Sexton: The first thing that’s readily apparent when you look at Creole World is that New Orleans is not some unique, one of a kind place. In fact it’s common. The only thing that’s uncommon is that all the places that are similar to it are not in the United States or North America. New Orleans is part of another world, the Creole world and that’s what I wanted to explore and convey. I had no real preconceptions about what the similarities would be and sometimes they were surprising and other times not.
LEH: Were their commonalities you hadn’t expected?
Sexton: Yes, I knew I would find very similar architecture. I also knew certain patterns would repeat. For instance, the central element in every Latin town is a plaza and the most significant edifice on the plaza is a Catholic church, just like New Orleans’ Jackson Square. That’s consistent and pervasive. Corner commercial buildings are another repeating pattern. Bars, coffee shops, bakeries, and all the neighborhood retail you need to survive tend to be embedded within the residential areas, and in actuality, almost no neighborhoods are exclusively residential. Everything is mixed use. There’s also an extremely public and intimate attitude toward the street. In the Creole world, you live on the street. It’s your front yard and your theater. That’s an important commonality.
LEH: The Gulf South is an ever-shifting landscape. How has it changed in recent years, and how does that impact your work?
Sexton: The shifting and threatened landscape was a major focus in Terra Incognita, a book and related exhibit from 2007. Considering the magnitude of this problem in south Louisiana, in particular, this is something that impacts not only me and my work, but all of society. As a photographer who works in the documentary style, I try through my work to increase awareness of this vitally important challenge we all face. I’m just one of many artists and photographers whose work has been impacted and influenced by global warming, coastal erosion, and the increasing threat of storms. As Walker Percy said, which I’ll paraphrase, all art really does is reconfirm what people already know. That’s what I try to do.
5. Can you reflect on the work of Michael P. Smith, for whom this award is dedicated?
First, I’m quite honored to have received an award named after Michael P. Smith and I’m equally honored that its an award for documentary photography. When I first moved to New Orleans, Michael P. Smith, was the only photographer active in New Orleans that I had heard of previously, and I knew his work through his books, many of which I came to own and treasure. I think the greatest compliment I can give his work is that in every photograph it’s always about the subject and its never about him. You see, you feel, you relate to, you commiserate with, you understand, his subject in a direct and unimpaired way. That’s the beauty of his work and why it will live well beyond Michael’s lifetime.
More: click here to view an excerpt from Sexton’s previous book, Terra Incognito, from the Fall ’07 issue of LCV.