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Interview

The World in Black and White


Atlantis, Vertical Vehicle
Assembly Building
PDN
Do you only shoot in black and white?

JOHN SEXTON
Today my passion is still black and white. Today if I have an array of cameras in front of me the one I would reach for that I would feel most comfortable with would be a 4 X 5 View camera. I was once working in a sort of soft light situation. It had rained on some vivid green ferns in Maine and it was quite beautiful. I was moving the camera slightly and studying the ground glass. Looking at those 20 square inches, trying to find out just what were the right elements to include. And then as I frequently do, some times I'll peek out from underneath the focusing cloth and just look around the edges of the frame that I'm not seeing, see if there's something that should be adjusted in terms of changing the camera position. I remember being shocked when I came out from under the focusing cloth after a minute or two being submerged within that, at the startling green color of those ferns. Because on that ground glass and in my mind, all I was thinking about was how to make them look as silvery as they felt.

PDN
Your work is very "pure" in the sense that there are no gimmicks involved. Would you describe yourself as a traditionalist. And do you see yourself banging the drum for pure photography?

JOHN SEXTON
There is a considerable amount of manipulation in the printmaking from the straight photograph to the finished print. If I do my job correctly that shouldn't be visible at all, it should be transparent. I support any procedure that allows photographers to express themselves, whether that involves color, black and white, platinum, palladium and digital technology. When the object that is produced, the photographic image has the ability to make tears come to your eyes; to inspire you to the point where you have to catch your breath, then nothing else matters. Whatever it takes to get the image to reach that level is what that photographer needs to do. And for me, I just have such a love of the tactile and sensuous quality of a black and white silver gelatin print. I've never seen a surface that I think is more seductive in image making.


The Educator

PDN
What words of advice do you give to young photographers starting out?

JOHN SEXTON
When I teach and meet a class for the first time, you realize that there are people there that have exceptional abilities or have the potential to do exceptional things and you never know who those people are. My job is to provide the best information I can. I really don't have any secrets. I've never met a photographer whose work I respected that had a secret because the secret lies within each and every one of us.

The reason I do workshops is so I can learn, and I am fortunate that I've probably gained more from the whole experience of teaching than any one participant has. It is all about asking.

PDN
Could you tell us what you mean by that?

JOHN SEXTON
The best example is Edwin Land, the inventor of the Polaroid process. His daughter asked him: " Why can't I see the picture now?" There were a thousand reasons why it would be impossible and yet he looked at it in a different way. And today we take instant film for granted.

PDN
Do you have to be a certain personality to be a professional photographer?

JOHN SEXTON
I think the greatest photographers are the amateur photographers who do it because they love it. Arnold Newman is a good example; he is a consummate professional, but he's also an 'amateur' in the pure sense of the word. We all start in this medium because of the magic and the challenge is to keep it going.



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