I thought that I would like to end 2008 with a review of a book that has been quietly sitting on my shelf for a while. Although John Sexton’s book Reflections was published in 2006, I did not purchase it until 2007.
On the little more technical publishing side, it is a hardcover book (trade and limited edition), 140 pages, 12″ x 12″, with 45 black & white photographs (plates), printed on 80lb Sappi Lustro Gloss Cover. Beautifully printed, bound and has that impressive book weight & heft to it. The book was published by Venana Editions, which is John Sexton’s publishing company, thus this could be considered a self-published book, and in of itself, truly reflects Sexton’s design aesthetics.
I should first admit that in the early 1980′s, I attended some classes that Sexton was teaching at Cypress College and the Muckenthaler Center while he was still attending college and living in Southern California. At the time, he was just getting his workshops tweaked with Ray McSavaney and Bruce Barnbaum, both of whom were still living in Southern California. I was already committed to the zone system, using a medium format camera and very interested in the natural landscape, but more interested in Minor White and Wynn Bullock than Ansel Adams. Right after graduation, Sexton then moved to Northern California to work as Adams assistant. And I purchased this book as I was making my transition away from the natural landscape towards the urban and industrial landscape.
As this book is meant to be a thirty year retrospective, the thematic bond of the photographs is that they are all rendered in black and white. Sexton is primarily known for his natural landscape photographs, but has also worked on an industrial series as well as the some architectural details. Interestingly, none of the industrial photographs were included in this book, an interesting exception for a retrospective body of work. This exception results in the danger that the book becomes more of a catalog of photographs suitable for framing for your living room.
Many of Sexton’s black and white photographs thus resonate within me, and I can easily place myself within the frame of the image or perhaps behind the camera looking at these same compositions thru the lens. The solid foundations of rock and stone with the running water, the fluid symbols of time and life, etching their way through and creating new pathways, have always has a special appeal to me. And Sexton creates these photographs with a delicate touch, capturing the nuance’s of tonality and providing a wonderful and peaceful harmony.
For me, one of the challenges of natural landscape photography is to extract the essence of that natural moment, but balanced with a compositional design that can potential elevate the resulting photograph to another aesthetic level. There is a risk of creating “just another pretty natural photograph”. Using the black and white medium does help with creating a more abstract image and disassociation from nature.
The book contains some classic natural elements, such as the corn lilies, oaks in fog, water cascades and trees in blowing snow (book cover). But there are others which are true abstractions, such as the “Foam on Water”, very graphic, rendered in just pure black and white, no gray tonalities. To have seen and subsequently capture this graphic pattern present in nature is a delight. The same is also true for the Sandstone Forms, Painted Window, Cracked Mud and his rock details. One photograph of the “Sculptured Sandstone and Pool” borders on the obscene, a symbolic Mother Nature who is revealing her most private intimacy.
Sexton is not known for creating heavily manipulated images, that show the effects of his hand in the darkroom. Nevertheless, his photographs are not truly “straight” interpretations as was proported by Edward Weston, but have been deftly manipulated to create a visual effect. He provides some additional information about his creative darkroom processes in his photographers notes, which I suspect might be of some interest to those who have thought about attending his creative photographic workshops.
All in all, it is an interesting collection of photographs, containing the natural images you would expect by Sexton, but with some wonderful surprises. A book that I would recommend if you want to visually experience the potential range of images that are possible with a creative interpretation of nature.
Best regards, Douglas Stockdale