Interview with Photographer Richard Sexton
I don’t know a photographer in New Orleans more beloved than Richard Sexton. His 1993 breakthrough, Elegance & Decadence, has been the city’s favorite coffee table book for over two decades. Among other things, it will probably go down as the last exhaustive, intimate photographic document of the French Quarter as a truly residential neighborhood. My favorite corner of his oeuvre is 2014’s Creole World. The project links New Orleans and the magisterial colonial cities of the French and Spanish New World, photographing them in an ingenious manner that renders them practically indistinguishable. His next and most recent project, Enigmatic Stream, which focuses on the industrial landscape of the Mississippi River in black and white, is Creole World’s opposite in almost every way. I wanted to know what compelled him to pivot so radically, and the deeper meaning of his more immediately seductive work. At nearly every turn, his answers surprised me.
Alec Quig: I wanted to start in on Enigmatic Stream with your preface. The texts that accompany your photographic books are consistently great. I had never considered these industrial structures as “having a whiff of the 20th century about them,” or, relatedly, that some are about as old now as the River Road plantation houses were when people like Clarence John Laughlin were first photographing them as relics of a bygone era. It immediately threw the entire landscape into a completely different light for me. I’ll see everything you included in this book differently in “real life” forever now.
Richard Sexton: The industrial corridor of the lower river is a well-traveled subject. It has been featured in whole, or in part, in many photographic and written works. One aspect of my approach that’s different is that I’ve treated this landscape as a historical one. The industrialization of this corridor began well over a century ago, and if you count the sugar mills, which are in fact manufacturing plants, the industrialization is far older than that. As I frequently mention, the river road we know today once represented the future. This was the technology that would make our lives better. It was gas for our cars. Jet fuel for our planes. It was rayon, plastics, fertilizer, and chemicals, that when added to everything from paint to shoe polish, would make those products better. All of this is still true, except we have a different future now: information, the internet. The heavy industry of the river road is the future of the past.
AQ: This is so novel for me to consider, because I’ve always personally experienced this part of the world as the most perfect, multifaceted representation of disembodied institutionalized evil conceivable. Of course, this is almost entirely colored by what I’ve read about it, of which there’s a lot, and which tends to be David versus Goliath, or titled along the lines of “The Louisiana Environmental Apocalypse Road Trip.” Then, as if all the off-limits refineries weren’t enough, they’re interspersed with sugarcane plantations. I feel like the air out there seems to practically sizzle with malevolence. I can’t think of a stranger stretch of road in the entire country. And your take on all of this is so measured — though that might not be the right word — that it makes my own feel pretty hysterical. There was a similar dynamic when we discussed how New Orleans has changed and is changing a few years back. I think this is the bull’s eye of why I find your work, and talking to you about your work, so refreshing — the utter lack of hysteria. Much of the fuel for my own work is chicken little-esque, and obviously, there’s a lot of hysteria in the air today. I feel like the “oilfield trash and proud of it” grave marker coda in Enigmatic Stream is a great example, comparatively, of your approach to things. I know wonderful people from Vacherie, Plaquemine, and Donaldsonville, but I never feel or see them reflected in any of the built environment. I rarely consider that individual human element because you don’t see many humans in this landscape.
RS: The oil industry, and heavy industry in general, has never looked any different than what you’re describing. In fact, the river road has a diverse range of heavy industry. It’s not just oil refineries, though that’s the popular conception. There are cement plants, alumina plants, granaries, fertilizer plants, sugar refineries, and all the rest. The reason heavy industry has been tolerated, or accepted, or even embraced, is because it’s kept hidden. One of the great planning advancements of the 19th century was the separation of factories from other land uses. Living above the shop was no more. Put heavy industry in areas zoned for that use exclusively. Light industry can be a little more integrated; a body shop, for instance. The only mixed use allowed in residential areas would be for retail and essential services, and in modern times, further separation has been imposed on that, too. In essence, separate everything from everything else. Out of sight, out of mind. The lower river was the perfect place to hide heavy industry. You’ve got the river, which is deep and wide enough to function as a linear seaport. By the end of the 19th century, the river itself was totally left behind by railroads, highways, and eventually interstates and airports. It became a backwater. Anyone traveling today between New Orleans and Baton Rouge bypasses all of it. So, when a photographer explores the river road today, it’s not all that different from exploring inner city slums, or the urban projects, or the underground sewers.
AQ: I would have never thought of it that way. It’s always felt like a palpable time warp to me, but I never got much farther than that imaginatively.
RS: Think of H. G. Wells’ Time Machine — the Morlocks living in the underground factories breathing pollution, allergic to the light of day, the Eloi frolicking as if in a Maxfield Parrish painting above. It looks utopian for the reader, until they discover the Eloi are the cattle fed on by the Morlocks below. So the river road “sizzles with malevolence” from your perspective not because it is genuinely that, but because you are seeing the underbelly of a reality that’s been intentionally hidden from you. I’m sure you know the old expression, “If you ever saw sausage being made, you wouldn’t eat them.” Well, now you’re in the sausage factory.
AQ: How did your thinking on all of this evolve in the twenty odd years you spent making these pictures? Did you always think of it this way?
RS: There was an evolution. The source of it emerged when I was working on Vestiges of Grandeur. I was exposed to all the heavy industry along the river road corridor. It wasn’t my focus for that project, but you can’t miss it. Heavy industry is the dominant feature of the landscape. I was intrigued by it. It was complex. It overpowered the landscape. I had a perverse attraction to it, to the strangeness of it.
AQ: I would’ve never thought of it that way. How much of this had to do with the work — the actual process of making these pictures — versus gradually just being in the environment more and more while focusing on other things?
RS: When I first started the project, the focus was more on the manmade modifications to the river — bridges, levees, etc. But heavy industry was a part of it too. I became stymied because I wasn’t sure there was enough material for a book-length project. There was plenty of stuff, certainly, but I wasn’t sure it was photogenic enough, or that I could make compelling photographs from these subjects. But, as I plowed ahead, I eventually found a way to make it visually interesting. Probably the most significant influence in this regard was Lewis Baltz, whose book The new Industrial Parks near Irvine, California, was a real inspiration.
AQ: So it was gradual.
RS: Sporadic is more descriptive. I started the project in the early 2000s, got frustrated with it, then after completing some other projects, I became reinvigorated and took a new approach in 2014. It was then that my attitude toward the subject matter and my enthusiasm for the images I was creating really changed. It’s also when I approached Historic New Orleans Collection to sponsor the project. The arduous decision was that the project had to be done in black and white. That was an epiphany of sorts. That’s the decision that made the whole thing click.
AQ: This is related: I’m curious as to whether there was a clear, central, glaringly obvious “fuel source,” if you will, that motivated you to continue to seek out these pictures. Where did you draw and maintain the fortitude to photograph a subject that, at least compared to most of your other work, is so much less obviously photogenic or picturesque? I mean, there’s an obvious romance to traipsing around Cuba and Latin America making pictures of glorious buildings, and your French Quarter interiors are as close to objectively interesting as can be. Enigmatic Stream seems way more like working in the trenches. Was it?
RS: Yes, this one was different. The photographic process was different. The medium was different. Terra Incognita is my only other book in black and white. I was in the trenches somewhat because I had a dispassionate, uncooperative, reluctant subject. I was swimming upstream, not downstream. I also didn’t have the same intimate knowledge of my subject matter that I usually have. I was pointing my camera at heavy industry. Was it a fertilizer plant, a rayon plant, a petrochemical plant, or an oil refinery? In some cases, I didn’t know. All I knew was that it was a manmade disruption of the landscape, and that’s all I cared about at the time.
AQ: In terms of having a “fuel source,” I had a few guesses: obviously, our dependence on oil is perhaps the ultimate issue facing humanity now. I can see you wanting to challenge yourself at this stage in the game. I can see wanting to make work radically different than the work that preceded it in form and content. But I suspect there’s something else driving all of this that’s worth talking about?
RS: Those are the main reasons. We now know the future we once believed in is not sustainable, or without consequence. The engineering of the lower Mississippi contributes to coastal erosion. We are over-consuming a vital natural resource, which is actually renewable, but only if you’ve got a few hundred million years to spare. And then there is global warming, which the refineries contribute to, and the product they produce contributes more. So it’s time to examine the conundrum we’re in. I’m an end-of-an era guy. Fin-de-siecle. If I’m photographing a subject, it’s because I think, among other things, there is change brewing around it. It is not what it once was.
AQ: This may be too obvious, but I believe I’m the first person interviewing you about this, so I have to ask: how many times you were chased off by security making these pictures, homeland or otherwise? Every time I’ve stopped to photograph in the vicinity of the petro plants, security’s on you lickety-split. Despite the low population density, it often seems like there’s more law enforcement driving around the river road than regular people.
RS: I was questioned several times by plant security, and once they called homeland security on me. This resulted in a rather lengthy conversation with an FBI agent, who had already determined I was harmless and was somewhat annoyed that he was having to deal with me. I obviously wasn’t a terrorist and the plant was using that pretext to try and prevent photography, which they didn’t want for publicity reasons. I was questioned by a friendly deputy in St. Charles Parish who told me he had gotten three different 911 calls that someone was photographing the Little Gypsy power plant. Another deputy prevented me from photographing the Sunshine Bridge, of all things, because it was vital infrastructure, even though by then I had a letter of introduction from John Lawrence, the director of museum programs at the Historic New Orleans Collection, explaining why I was taking photographs. I asked the deputy how many photographs he had seen of the Golden Gate Bridge, which you have to admit is more vital infrastructure than the Sunshine Bridge. His response: “I don’t know what they do in California, but you can’t be taking photographs around all these refineries.” So I agreed to stop, put my camera and tripod in the car, drove off, and he drove off, and as soon as he was gone I resumed work.
AQ: I wanted to talk a little about your work that preceded Enigmatic Stream, because it’s so different in nearly every way. The subject matter is so much more inherently seductive. And there’s this wonderful conceptual sophistication to Creole World in particular. You really show that New Orleans is the “northernmost Caribbean city,” as its often called. It’s unique in the US, but less so in the larger world. It’s a part of a larger network of very similar places connected by their colonial pasts. I wanted to ask how the pictures in Creole World are deeper than, say, photographing beautiful patina on beautiful buildings in beautiful light?
RS: At an opening in Charleston, a retired historian told me, “The thing I like most about your photographs is that most people photograph details, and you photograph information. Information is different than details.” Information, to him, was a meaningful detail, an insightful detail, where you learned something about the subject that you didn’t otherwise know, even if the subject was one you’d seen many other photographs of. It’s an observation from which something can be learned or understood. The photograph provides an understanding that’s different, deeper, or focuses on something that’s been overlooked or unappreciated before.
AQ: Interesting. I thought your answer might be along the lines of what you’ve said earlier and elsewhere: “You don’t know what a building’s future is going to be, which is a compelling reason to take a photograph, because the status of the building is going to change.”
You go on: “In New Orleans the buildings are the backdrop for human activity, the life that goes on here. The old architecture, frequently in less than perfect condition, is the perfect backdrop for modern experience.” What do you mean?
RS: I’m referring to the city having a viable past that people in the present want to be connected to.
AQ: New Orleans certainly has that in a way that’s rare in the US. Do you feel like more people want to have some connection to the past nowadays, than, say, in the 80s or 90s? I’m 33. My generation gets a lot of flack for being too backwards-looking, retro-inclined, fetishizing the pre-industrial, the artisanal, et cetera, but I think the internet’s simply made the past far more accessible.
RS: There have been moments in history when you absolutely had to look in the rearview mirror. Sometimes you have to retrace your steps. There are a lot of wrong turns along the way that society, culture, nations…the whole world goes down. When you’re on one of these dead ends, and you start to suspect it’s where you are, that’s when you have to realize: wait a minute. This is not what I expected or hoped for. This is not where we’re supposed to end up.
AQ: I love how you use the word “dead-end.”
RS: It’s like, we need to get back on the right highway. Time and again it’s happened to humanity. Generally speaking, in the end, everything works out for the better. But it’s really chaotic for a period of time. Innocent people’s lives are destroyed. It’s not the best way for things to happen, but sometimes it’s the only way. But in the end I feel reasonably confident. Look, we’ve gotten this far. I don’t think everything’s going to implode. I don’t think we’re going to become extinct in the next couple of decades. But I don’t think it’s gonna be pretty, either.
AQ: So how does this relate back to Creole World specifically?
RS: Look at Latin Americans in this country — they come in and transform the built environment into something that’s invariably more interesting than what was there before. I was in Dallas several years ago for a commercial assignment. I had to go to a lab to get film processed in a neighborhood near the old Love Field. That airport is surrounded by a neighborhood that was lower-middle-class, down-and-out…
AQ: As areas around airports tend to be.
RS: Right. It was an automobile-oriented, post-WWII suburban neighborhood that had been recently re-populated by Hispanic people, and they were transforming it. They were converting carports into shops for manicures, pedicures, and hair. Or to rent videos. Or work on cars. Everything you can imagine. Everything their neighborhoods in Latin America had, that this American automobile suburb didn’t have, they wedged into the neighborhood, and against every code. Food trucks, kids running around playing in the street. It had been a dull suburban place, and was turned it into a surreal, vernacular, urban neighborhood.
AQ: Did you take pictures?
RS: No — I just vividly remember driving through it. It was a neighborhood that had become boring to the point that traditional suburbanites didn’t want to live there anymore. The houses were old and run-down. The city had grown up around it, and there was airport noise. Then, with virtually no money, the newcomers made it a more interesting place. If I had an agenda with Creole World, that’s what it was. Most people really like New Orleans. It’s a poster child for a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, Pan-American approach to life. But that level of cultural fusion is causing so much angst in society today. People can sense that things are changing pretty fast, and in directions away from their tribe. There’s this insecurity, and they worry, needlessly. Why the resistance? You just have to accept the fact that everything evolves. Nothing stays the same. You have to learn to appreciate, adopt, and accept difference.
AQ: As the moral of Creole World, I didn’t quite see this coming.
RS: What I’m really saying is, essentially, New Orleans, south Louisiana, is an ancient, marooned part of Latin America. A more Latin culture was sufficiently entrenched here, so it wasn’t squashed out. Think about the southern border of the United States. It was all once part of Latin America. Now it’s going back that way. Not through military intervention, but cultural infusion and sheer force of numbers. You may not want to call it creolization, but there’s a parallel kind of event that’s happening. The southern border of North America is being transformed into the transitional northern border of South America. New Orleans is one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon in the United States, and now it’s happening in other places in the U.S. We might as well accept the fact that not only is there no stopping this, but that it’s a bad idea to try to. Because of creolization, these places are getting better!
AQ: Absolutely. And I wanted to talk about the African and French aspect of this, too. We talked about the whole ruin porn thing in the air during the recession, and in terms of photographing architecture, you made a distinction between photographing scars as opposed to wounds. How does that apply to Haiti? You were working there when the aftermath of the earthquake was still pretty fresh.
RS: The wound is pain and suffering itself. Scars are evidence that you’ve survived trauma. The scar is a survivor story. And in Haiti, so much of what I wanted to photograph was already gone, or has disappeared since. And as time goes on, it’ll continue.
AQ: Right. That’s what I’ve been so compulsive about documenting New Orleans. The more I do it, the more I realize how quickly things change.
RS: Everywhere I go, even if it’s not going to fit with the project I’m currently working on…if it seems like it’s not going to be there next time, I’m gonna take a picture. But then there are lots of things that look like they’re not gonna survive, and they do! It’s like the intensive care wing at the hospital — you don’t know who’s gonna make it.
AQ: I’ve also had periods of time where things consistently disappeared days after I photographed them, to the extent that I started to become superstitious about it.
RS: Photography is in many ways about receiving gifts. And sometimes it’s good to not have a laundry list of the things you want. As a project evolves and you learn more about the subject, you become more of a detective. You can’t presuppose too much. You’ll go down dead ends. You have to figure things out in an experiential way. There’s a fine line sometimes between open-mindedness and ignorance, and you have to walk that line. You just go with what reality gives you. The real planning is in editing. Photography is spontaneous and from the hip, and what I do is far less from the hip than most. Putting everything together after the fact is much more thoughtful and deliberative.
AQ: With that said, so how do you plan these projects? How intensive is your research process?
RS: I don’t do a lot of research on any of these things. I’ve heard jazz musicians say that they don’t want to learn to play written music because it’ll weaken their improvisational ability. If you’re trained as a photographer, you can’t take a snapshot anymore. You can imitate one, but you know too much about how to do things. The things that make snapshots interesting, for example, you probably can’t do anymore, except by mistake. But you do have to have some clear plan that’s based on knowledge and research.
RS: My philosophy is to acquire some very basic information and then just go. That’s the important thing: just go. And I’ll have some sort of plan, but I’m primarily going to be reactive. All good photographers have this trait. You have to sum up a situation and sort out what you feel about it very quickly.
AQ: Maybe their intuition is functioning on different strata? Most people don’t notice the things, or at least the details, that photographers do.
RS: Most people don’t notice a lot of things around them. They’re concentrated on other things. Most people are too distracted to take a good photograph. Part of it is lack of practice. Photography is not that difficult. It’s about at the same level as, say, cooking. It’s not that hard, but it’s not easy. But photographers come to know a lot about the subjects they photograph. Much of that is experiential. That’s the most valuable thing about every photograph you see: it’s evidence of an encounter. You’re seeing something that the photographer stared in the face.
AQ: Even if it’s a building’s face.
RS: You can capture the feeling of a particular place even if you don’t show people directly. I’ve never been that preoccupied with the way people look. If I were, I’d probably be a fashion photographer. Fashion is very fake, but it’s also very real. Everybody’s playing things out. What’s more interesting to me is: Where do they live? What’s on their bookshelf? What are they reading? Let me see their underwear drawer! What’s in there? What’s underneath the bed? That’s going to tell me more about the person than the person! I don’t actually photograph under people’s beds, but I have photographed their bedrooms. I’ve taken many photographs that show the things people choose to have around them. A living room is an inner-sanctum fantasy of what they want to be surrounded with, and what they want to project to the people they bring into their home. It’s often a stage set, and a revealing one. It’s an interesting artifact! They put it all together. It’s their fantasy.
AQ: Oh, totally. My house is totally like that. It’s conveys a lot instantly in a way that I find tremendously helpful. People are exponentially more receptive to me once they’ve been to my house.
RS: In one photograph, you can show all of one room, or an important part of it, and it’ll tell you a lot about that person. Unless they’re Brigitte Bardot, their living room is typically more fascinating than the way they look. Almost everyone is fascinating for what they’ve acquired in a packrat kind of way.
AQ: And maybe more so the more their story is different than your own. Are you a packrat?
RS: No, I’m kind of the reverse.
AQ: You’ve never been a collector? I see a lot of parallels to photography there: how many thousands of photographs you can make, organizing them into collections.
RS: I try to be simple, Zen-like. I’m more comfortable in a beautiful volumetric space that’s mostly empty than in an over-cluttered room with stuff piled up everywhere.
AQ: From your books, I would’ve expected the opposite.
RS: I had a bird’s nest that an artist friend, Elizabeth Shannon, had given me in exchange for photographing some of her installations. I never actually intended to photograph the nest until I realized it was deteriorating, and eventually I’d have to throw it out. It incorporated a six-pack ring, a soda can’s pop top, shards of plastic, mop strands…all of this detritus. I photographed a bird’s feather I found on the beach. I photographed all these bird artifacts, but no bird. What was more interesting to me was to reveal something important about the bird without showing it. That kind of obtuse, vicarious approach is typical of a lot of things I photograph.
AQ: I interviewed another photographer, Will Steacy, years ago, and for some time he had a blog called “The Photos Not Taken.” Do you have any that immediately spring to mind? I mean, I had three today alone.
RS: I’ll tell you this: I don’t sweat them anymore. When you’ve been photographing as long as I have, you’ve missed so many…you’re going to miss millions in a lifetime. And you immediately forget. You just try to get the ones you can. If you can just get 1%, it’s gonna be great. Just as a general rule, I like things to look photographic. I like photography for its own sake. It doesn’t need to look like a painting. It doesn’t need to involve an archaic process from the 19th century. If it was shot with an iPhone, that’s fine. I’m not a purist about photography in that regard. I like photography for what it is. It doesn’t have to be “improved” in any way, or overly massaged after the fact. If I were giving art direction to a photographer, it would be this: just take the picture and show it to me! You found something meaningful, so record it in a meaningful way, and let me see it. That’s about as simple as it gets.