Jim Kasson interviewed John Sexton in February during a long walk in the upper Carmel Valley.
JK: Your latest book is overtly thematic. Much of your earlier work could be viewed as a single extended exploration of the landscape. How do you feel about making series of photographs?
JS: When I was a photography student and an art major in college, once we got beyond the initial courses, we always had to work in projects. So when I graduated in 1976, the last thing I wanted to do was make a series of images. I just wanted to make photographs that were spontaneous and came from the heart. I loved photographing the landscape, so that’s what I did. Years later, looking back on my work, I realized that I had continued to work in series, but not a conscious, intellectualized series. I wanted each photograph to be an independent experience, but as those independent experiences began to accumulate toward a critical mass, there were common denominators.
While assembling my first book, Quiet Light, which had a diversity of subjects, my editor saw a slide lecture of my work and suggested that I consider doing a book on trees. My first response was: “That’s easy, that’s what I do anyway.” When I began to sort through negative files I found there really had been a series, even though it had taken twenty years. If all else failed, photographically, I returned to the forest. That’s where I made my best photographs; that’s where I felt most in tune.
JK: Did your discovery of patterns in your work change the way you photographed?
JS: As soon as my passion for photographing trees became a book project, things did change. I don’t think the quality of my photographs suffered, but the level of enjoyment was slightly diminished. When we sent the pictures off to the printer in 1994, I remember saying to Anne Larsen, “Now I can just go back and photograph trees because I love to.”
I thought it would be easy to assemble a book of tree photographs, and it wasn’t. Anytime you try to look at your own work, whether for an exhibition, or just sharing it with friends, as you begin to edit the work, you discover things about it: you see strengths, you see consistencies. Whatever you find, you have a different mind-set. You work differently as you progress toward the end of a thematic book project. The earlier images influence later photographs. You sense gaps in the series, then you make images that bridge these gaps and add cohesiveness to the body of work. That being said, I still try to approach each photograph as an independent emotional experience, and attempt to make each image the best possible.
JK: In your latest book, there are four bodies of work united by a common theme. Did the unifying idea occur to you early in the project?
JS: Places of Power didn’t start as a conscious series. I began photographing some ancient Anasazi sites in the Southwestern landscape. That made perfect sense to me: it seemed like a logical extension of my previous work. These structures and sites were in some of the most spectacular landscape that I’d ever seen. At the same time, because I wanted to challenge a group of photographic students on a workshop, we went on a field trip to a power plant. I hoped I’d find something I’d want to photograph myself, but I couldn’t have imagined, when we walked in the door of that power plant, that I’d spend several years of my life photographing power plants. The beauty I found was utterly unexpected.
JK: The Anasazi sites were man-made, but they were created so long ago and the construction methods were so different from today’s that, without explication, they don’t read like celebrations of technology. Was the power plant series your first extended effort with modern man-made objects?
JS: Absolutely. It was an emotionally trying experience. If I had a hope on my most optimistic days for my photographs of the natural environment, it was to have people be enlightened to the importance of preserving and protecting the planet. I walked into this coal-burning, steam power plant, and discovered something that took my breath away. I knew of no way to photograph it other than to record its stunning beauty. I had no idea why I wanted to make those images. I decided the best way to attempt to find the answer was to make more photographs. I was, for the first time, attempting to use photography to investigate my own beliefs and values.
JK: Did you immediately get satisfying results, or did you have to learn a new approach to this subject?
JS: The very first day I walked into that power plant, I made the negative that ended up as the cover picture for the power plant section in Places of Power. It’s rare for me to come up with a keeper right out of the box.
JK: So now we’ve got two themes going. How did you get the third?
JS: In 1990, I was in Las Vegas for a professional commitment. I had some free time, so I decided to get out of town and to visit Hoover Dam. I have a great interest in the challenges of water usage in the West. My initial idea was to photograph all of the Colorado River dams, making a statement about what is arguably the world’s largest piece of plumbing. I talked to the people at the dam, sent them some examples of what I’d done in the power plants, and made arrangements to get a behind-the-scenes look at the dam. I walked in there, and found it such a stunningly beautiful place that I’ve never photographed another Colorado River dam.
JK: When you first went in there, how did it compare with what you expected? How long did it take you to change your mind about the scope of the project?
JS: Only a couple of minutes. Typically, in a new location, I leave my camera in the car. In Hoover Dam, I don’t think I’d been off the elevator for two minutes before I said to my guide, “I know this looks like bad planning, but I really want to go and get my camera now.” I came back with the 4×5, and immediately saw a picture I wanted to make. The structure was so elegant, and so beautiful in and of itself, aside from the function that it performs. I still remember that day in the spring of 1990 as a great day of photography.
As I was driving back to my motel in Las Vegas, I kept asking myself, “Why am I doing this?” I had this power plant thing going, and I still didn’t know what was so attractive to me about that. I continued to photograph the landscape, and the Anasazi ruins still fit right into that. I’d had a great day photographing a dam. What made it so enjoyable? Why were the photographs so easy to make? Every place I turned, I saw something exciting, and that’s unusual for me.
Stopped at a traffic light on the way back, a whole flood of information started spilling out of my unconscious. I had an idea what tied these three seemingly disparate subjects together. I knew what appealed to me about it. I wanted it to be a book. I had a title for the book, and I knew what the fourth subject was going to be.
What interested me about these sites was the human accomplishment, the technological beauty. I realized that there was a common denominator of the aesthetics of technology, the beauty that comes from human engineering, whether schooled or informal. I realized that, for the first time in my photography, there was an element of time. I wanted my landscape photographs to convey a timeless quality, unlike some other landscape photographers whose work I really respond to and respect, where there’s a sense of the land at a given period of time. I had nearly a thousand years of human activity in these three subjects, but what I lacked was something more contemporary. It was at that signal that I decided that I wanted to try to photograph the Space Shuttle.
JK: You had your fourth subject, or at least the possibility. Did you have an approach in mind, or did you just want to see what would happen to you in the presence of your subject?
JS: The night before I went to the Kennedy Space Center, I was incredibly nervous. It might be, when I finally got to see a Space Shuttle orbiter, it would be nothing more to me than a high-tech bucket of bolts. Hoover Dam was not. Hoover Dam made my heart beat faster. The power plants excited me. The Anasazi sites had sense of power and mystery that had become an obsession at that point. I didn’t know if the Shuttle would just be a mechanical shell. When I first went into what I now know is the Orbital Processing Facility, there was such a complexity of support stands and apparatus, cables, pipes, and vents, that I literally couldn’t see the spacecraft. I was looking around for the Shuttle, which is the size of a DC-9 airplane, and then looked up and saw the ceramic heat-insulating tiles, which I could recognize. Just a few feet over my head, I could see the expanse of the underbelly of Endeavor. A few weeks earlier six human beings had been on board going 17,500 miles an hour! I knew at that moment that the Shuttle component of the project was valid. I made that photograph. It’s a photograph that I still like; it’s in Places of Power.
JK: You had a thoughtful approach that you’d developed over a period of years with the other technology projects. How did you develop and refine your approach once you were on the scene?
JS: I’d make a trip, process the film, make work prints, hang them on the wall and live with them – that’s an important part of not just a project, but the examination of ones’ work. It took a few trips before I got into a rhythm. I began to make wish lists, based on what I saw, what my research was indicating, and what I’d done last time. Sometimes it was redoing something that didn’t quite work, sometimes looking at a new area.
JK: When you were working on the Shuttle project, were you just thinking of the book, or did you think of the project as having an existence outside of the book.
JS: I haven’t been back since the book was published, which is an indicator. But I’d like to go back.
JK: The Shuttle pictures were the last project for the book?
JS: Everything was going on somewhat simultaneously. The very last pictures that were made for the book were of some Anasazi sites to which I wanted to return and get new images where I’d tried and failed.
JK: When you fail, is it usually for some technical reason, or for aesthetics?
JS: Aesthetics, I would say. The negative is printable, it’s sharp, it’s not ugly, but you look at the print and say, “So what?” It doesn’t live up to the expectation you had when you decided to expose the negative.
JK: Aren’t there some pictures you look at and say maybe that’s the best I can do with this idea?
JS: Sure. “Seemed like a good idea at the time. Wasn’t. Not going to try that again.” But there are other situations where you say, if I do it a little differently, it can work. However, I find going back to make a photograph over to be more difficult than making it initially, because when you go back and do it over again, it’s much more intellectual. And it’s hard to get everything the same, even if the weather cooperates. Usually, the redoes are a fraction of an inch off here or there, and hardly ever for the better.
JK: It’s not a series in the same way as the ones we’ve been talking about, but you did a great set of photographs a few years back in twilight lighting conditions, working long after most people would have packed up their camera.
JS: Oddly, I can remember the beginnings of that precisely. The day after Thanksgiving in 1974, I was driving with my friend Ray McSavaney just outside of Yosemite Valley. We stopped at a boulder with a branch with some ice on it. After setting up the 4×5 it was pretty dark. I knew a little bit about reciprocity departure from my photography classes, and I was able to calculate that it would require a one-minute exposure. I thought, “This won’t turn out at all. Too dark.” It turned out surprisingly well. After that, I was no longer afraid of one-minute exposures. Almost four years later I made a picture of some aspen trees. I remember printing the negative in the small darkroom in my garage. The print really satisfied me. It’s still a picture that I like a lot today. It was the first time I realized that something was happening with these long exposures that was producing results that I liked.
JK: As you examined the print, you were looking at something different than what you saw at the scene. With a one or two minute exposure, the eye and the film look at things quite differently.
JS: Absolutely. These trees glowed much more strongly in the print than they did when I was standing there. Then I looked back at my negatives, and found out that I had a pretty good batting average with long exposures, better than in the middle of the day or under more normal lighting conditions. From that negative on, I began to consciously look for low-light situations. Later, when I was teaching photography, I found that I was spending a lot of time dealing with photography, but not a lot of time doing my own photography. In my classes, I was encouraging everybody to work harder, do more, but I wasn’t following my own advice. So I decided to spend an hour every day doing something directly related to my own work. Right after I decided to do that, I found the contact sheet to the picture that I’d made with Ray. I’d made a work print, but now I saw the contact sheet with completely different eyes. I pulled the negative, and printed it the very next time I went into the darkroom. When I made the negative, it was an anomaly, both in the terms of the subject matter and of the quality of light. Now I had some similar images, and a new context. It became one of my favorite images, and, for a time, one of my most popular. I still enjoy working late in the day.
JK: After you gained some experience with twilight, could you look at a scene and know what the print was going to look like?
JS: I could begin to visualize that effect. I think that’s essential. You’re always open to some surprises, but taking a scene of some size and distilling it to a few square inches is a big leap to start with. If it worked every time for me, I’d print most of my negatives, but I print very few. But when it does work, it’s one of the real joys of photography. When you turn on the white light in the darkroom and something in that image fulfills an expectation that you had standing next to your camera, the process is magic.
JK: In the power plants and at Hoover Dam, you worked with high-contrast subjects. To make it even harder, in the power plants, much of the important information requires subtle separation in the high values. Quite a change from the twilight landscapes!
JS: I found I needed to alter my working procedures dramatically to produce the results that I wanted. The most important thing about the craft of photography or the craft of any art form is when to use it. If you’re not getting what you want in the aesthetics of the image, then you have to look for some new tool to convey that. I saw something in my mind’s eye, and couldn’t get it, so I tried some new procedures. Working in the power plants broadened my photographic capabilities, which then spilled back over into the landscape work.
JK: Earlier, when you discussed the Shuttle project, you said you were worried about falling into a formula without knowing it. My experience is that you know you’re falling into a formula because it’s not fun any more.
JS: When a project is nearing conclusion, it loses that element of fun. When the photography ends for the day, and on the way out you don’t see one more image you’d like to make if you had a little more time. If that happens a few times in a row, then maybe that location, if you’ve been returning to it, is mined out for a while. Or, if it’s a project, then maybe you ought to tie a little knot on it, put it away, and look for something else.
Here’s another way to tell when you’re getting to the end. How anxious are you to develop your film? If it can sit on the shelf without some sort of anguish, you’re done. If there’s a frame within a roll of film, or a sheet within a box of exposed film that you’re nervous about, and can’t wait to get it processed, that’s the way it should be. You shouldn’t be completely calm when you turn on the white light in the darkroom. Same with losing one: if you’re not upset when you make a mistake, you didn’t lose much.
JK: You don’t want to quit too early, though. Isn’t it important to go to your limit with that subject, that style, that series?
JS: I think so. Even with individual images. If you believe in that image, and a straight print doesn’t fulfill what you desire, then you ask yourself, “Is there something in there that I can fertilize to make it grow fruit?” To find out might take a box of paper. If at the end of it that it was a bad idea, you will have least learned something. Too often we stop short.
JK: What themes have a finite life for you and what will you do forever?
JS: I think I’ll photograph the landscape forever. It was my first love, and I’m not tired of it. I continue to find it a challenge.
JK: Do you photograph landscapes differently than you did twenty years ago?
JS: It becomes in a way, more difficult. You begin to repeat yourself. Every once in a while, you’ll make a picture that opens up a new avenue of exploration. My work is pretty traditional, pretty conservative. I’m not going out and trying to break new ground necessarily, unless that new ground emerges in a natural way.
JK: When you first started photographing seriously, were you trying to make art?
JS: No, I was just trying to make sharp pictures, and I rarely succeeded at that. I didn’t have any idea that a photograph had the capability to generate an emotional response. I had no knowledge of the power of photography until I saw an Ansel Adams print at the Pasadena Museum of Art in 1973, in an exhibition that included Edward Weston and Wynn Bullock. Some of the images made me catch my breath, and some brought tears to my eyes. I didn’t go to the exhibition expecting that. I found it there, and that’s when I began to realize that there was something more to photography than playing with the camera and playing around in the darkroom. I was already a photography major. I wanted to be a commercial photographer. I have the greatest respect for skilled commercial photographers; I think it’s a challenging endeavor. However, that exhibition changed my whole idea of what photography could be.
JK: A lot of Ansel’s popular work is frankly dramatic. Your work is less so. Has it always been that way? When you first started, did you try to emulate the people who got you excited about photography in the first place?
JS: Without a doubt. When I first started, I used a lot of strong filtration, and attempted to interpret things in a dramatic fashion. I couldn’t do it. I wish on some occasions that I knew how to photograph more dramatically, or render successfully dramatic moments, but they seem to escape me. My Yosemite Valley is not the grand monuments of Yosemite: Half Dome, El Capitan, the beautiful waterfalls; it’s the quieter moments, the nooks and crannies. The highlights of my youth are the one and two week trips with my family to the Yosemite Valley. I don’t know how successful I would have been photographing without that experience. The relationship with the land came first, and set the stage for my landscape photography. Photography and exploring the land occurred simultaneously for Ansel. The Sierra Nevada was an integral part of his life. I think that’s why he was so successful in rendering the experience to others. To his eyes, the topography, the geology, and the experience of the wilderness was bigger than life, and I think he showed that quite successfully in his photographs. It’s hard for someone else to do that without it looking contrived.
JK: During your early years, did you get advice from others, or was most of your development internally driven?
JS: I had the good fortune of getting great direction from my instructors in school, instructors in the Ansel Adams Workshops, and from Henry Gilpen, Dick Garrod, Al Weber, and many others, who gave me objective, honest, but encouraging feedback on my portfolio. I’d go home, work hard and come back with another set of prints, and visit those photographers again, including Ansel. Like most people, the first time I came out of the darkroom I thought I’d created a masterpiece. Looking back, it was anything but. Others had more perspective. Over time, I became a more demanding audience for my own photographs.
JK: You have, in the power plants and the Shuttle, a body of work that has documentary qualities. We’d both like to believe that in a hundred years, people will be able to go to Yosemite, and see pretty much what they see today, but it’s clear that if they walk into a power plant in a hundred years it’ll be all different. The Shuttle will look crude and primitive. Hoover Dam might not even be there, but your pictures probably will.
JS: I don’t do black and white photography to achieve permanence. I do black and white photography because I’ve never seen photographs as beautiful, with such tactile excitement. I love a black and white silver print. I also find it amazing that we have 160-year-old black and white photographs that are quite informational today. Even mediocre photographs recorded from such a distant time are fascinating. Frankly, most of the pictures that I make won’t end up on a museum wall or in a collection, but they could become important records of beauty that existed at a particular time on this planet. I like the idea that everything changes from day to day, but a photograph can freeze a moment in time— perhaps to be interpreted differently in the future.