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Southern Accents

by Elizabeth Dewberry

This noted photographer turned his interest in light, people, and nature into something more than a hobby

Richard Sexton’s first photograph, taken when he was in fourth grade with a Polaroid Swinger he got for Christmas, was a black-and-white image of his aunt standing next to a clothesline in the backyard.

It wasn’t until he was in college, though, that his interests in photography, light, people, and nature coalesced into something more than a hobby. “I bought a 35 millimeter camera so I could take pictures that were better than snapshots, and then I thought, ‘I just spent all this money on a camera. I’d better become a photographer.’ In retrospect, it’s naïve,” he says. “But that’s how it happened.”

Sexton may have chosen his art form haphazardly, but he chose well. Joshua Pailet, who has represented Sexton at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans for eight years, says, “The quality of his work stands up to the great masters of photography, yet his vision has a type of precision that, combined with his printmaking, is unique.”

Indeed, Sexton studies his subjects carefully and methodically long before he photographs them. “Most of my work focuses on architecture or landscapes,” he says, “and when I decide to photograph something, I scope it out. I’ll plan to come back at a certain time of day and year when the light is at its best for re-creating what it feels like to be in the presence of that subject.”

Viewers may remember one of Sexton’s previous works, a book titled Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, in which he documented the haunting architecture of the region. Working against the conventional notion that a photograph documents the specific moment that occurs when the camera clicks, Sexton tries “to capture all the various layers of time, the accretion of age, that are implicit in that moment,” he says. “It’s about giving recognition to an encounter.”

The artist’s favorite photographic encounters are those that happen in the aftermath of events, when he sees transformation occurring. “We usually think the word aftermath implies that there’s been a disaster, but in my work, it can be more subtle than that — a brushfire, a light rain, a beach party,” he says. “On the Gulf Coast, we’re always living in the aftermath of some kind of storm, so I’m looking for those moments when the present is consumed by the past, when a quiet serenity descends that gives you a chance to look at your world in a different light, when you can absorb what’s happened.”

Sexton’s current passion for creating black-and-white prints of natural environments that are close to places where people live and work reflects his hope for a world in which there’s “a better synthesis, more thoughtful intervention” between nature and human habitat.

“We can’t help but change nature, and it can’t help but influence us, but we can respect nature’s power and its beauty,” he says. This is a mature artist’s articulation of what Sexton knew intuitively at age 9, when he saw his aunt in the backyard and first captured on black-and-white film an interaction between nature and civilization.

Where to view: See Richard Sexton’s work in Terra Incognita: Photographs of America’s Third Coast (Chronicle Books, 2007), and visit www.ogdenmuseum.org for details about a traveling exhibition by the same name, which debuted at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in 2007. Also view his photographs at A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans; Gourd Garden Courtyard Shop in Rosemary Beach, Florida; Richter Gallery of Photography in Nashville; and Whitespace in Atlanta.

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