The PhotoBook Journal

December 31, 2008

John Sexton – Reflections

Filed under: Book Reviews, Photo Book Discussions, Photo Books — Tags: , — Doug Stockdale @ 7:01 pm

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John Sexton copyright 2006

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 technical publishing side this is a hardcover book (trade and limited edition) with 140 pages, 12″ x 12″, with 45 black & white photographs (plates) printed on 80lb Sappi Lustro Gloss Cover. Beautifully printed and bound that has an impressive book weight & heft to it. The book was published by Venana Editions which is John Sexton’s publishing imprint thus this could be considered a self-published book and truly reflects Sexton’s design aesthetics. (Editor’s note: subsequently determined that this was printed by Dual Graphics, Brea, CA_

I should first admit that in the early 1980’s I attended some photography classes that Sexton was teaching at Cypress College and at the Muckenthaler Center while he was still attending college and living in Southern California. At the time Sexton was just getting his photo 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 and more interested in Minor White and Wynn Bullock than Ansel Adams work. Right after his 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 photographs is are all rendered in black and white. Sexton is primarily known for his natural landscape photographs and 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 which is 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 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 his 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. Sexton creates these photographs with a delicate touch capturing the nuance’s of tonality and provides a wonderful and peaceful harmony.

For me one of the challenges of natural landscape photography is to extract the essence of that natural moment which is 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 some visual 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). There are other photographs which are true abstractions, such as the “Foam on Water”, very graphic rendered in just pure black and white with 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 of 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 purported by Edward Weston and 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 this book 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

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