Artistic inspiration can strike at the oddest times and in the oddest places. For Carmel Valley''s John Sexton--regarded as a contemporary master of large format black and white landscape photography--the inspiration for his latest book, Places of Power: The Aesthetics of Technology, occurred in a most unlikely location: a Wisconsin power plant.
"It was as if I walked into a museum gallery," recalls Sexton, who was scouting Wisconsin locations in 1987 for one of his popular and highly regarded black and white photography classes.
While touring the power plant, Sexton came face to face with a massive steam turbine and was immediately overwhelmed by the undeniable aesthetic beauty of the generator. "I felt compelled to photograph such a beautiful object," Sexton says. " I also was struck by the consequences of it being antithetical to my photographs of the natural environment. I decided the best way to resolve the issue was to make photographs."
Sexton''s initial interest in the interaction between man and the natural environment started in the 1980s, when he began photographing Anasazi cliff dwellings in the American Southwest.
Following a 1990 visit to Hoover Dam, Sexton began to more clearly discern the deeper connections and impulses between his landscape work and his newfound fascination with technology. "That started a real questioning process concerning why I was attracted to these different subjects and how they fit in to my photography of the landscape," Sexton explains.
Whether the subject is the Space Shuttle Columbia, powerful steam generators, or Anasazi cliff dwellings, John Sexton''s images suggest that we can reach beyond our physical limitations, our sense of separation, to create a oneness with the physical world.
It wasn''t until Sexton began his documentation of the 1990s space shuttle program that the idea of a book project became a reality. "That''s how the whole thing came together," says Sexton. "It took 10 years to do but, in an almost instantaneous mental revelation, I had the title and could see the book.
"What is fascinating to me about power plants and the Anasazi cliff dwellings is the aesthetic quality and beauty of this human technology," adds Sexton. "Even though there is a thousand years separating the ancient sites and contemporary subjects, the aesthetics and human touch creates a thread of continuity."
Beyond Visual Beauty
Places of Power: The Aesthetics of Technology is not only a fascinating study of man''s relationship to the natural world as expressed through his technological achievements, but also a tribute to Sexton''s technical mastery of his chosen medium. Regardless of his subject matter, Sexton''s aesthetic appreciation for light, tonality and beauty provides a unifying theme throughout his book.
Beyond the visual beauty of his images, however, there is an underlying message about technology itself. Whether the subject is the Space Shuttle Columbia, powerful steam generators or archaic Anasazi cliff dwellings, Sexton''s images suggest that "technology" is an embodiment of the human impulse to master the environment, that through technology we can tap into a deeper understanding of our place in the universe, to reach beyond our physical limitations, our sense of separation, to create a oneness with the physical world.
"Technology is one of the elements that define us as human beings," says Sexton, who acknowledges no small degree of irony in the idea of a landscape photographer with an abiding love for the environment becoming obsessed with taking pictures of machines.
Notwithstanding his reputation as a master photographer and printmaker, he admits that working in such new and radically different environments presented unique difficulties.
"There were a lot of technical challenges," concedes Sexton, who shot primarily with a 4x5 camera for this project. "It was sink or swim, and though I floundered for a while, I had enough experience that I came up swimming.
"My photography in the landscape is drawn to soft, low contrast light, working with exposures ranging into minutes," Sexton says. "I encountered long exposures again, but now in high contrast situations. On occasion, I used processing procedures to handle contrast. And though almost all the photographs were taken in available light, I occasionally used a pocket flash to paint with light. Many of the spaces were so massive, though, it was almost meaningless."
"Technology is one of the elements that define us as human beings," says John Sexton, who acknowledges no small degree of irony in the idea of a landscape photographer with an abiding love for the environment becoming obsessed with taking pictures of machines.
What is most compelling to Sexton is the way the new book''s photographs, taken collectively, call into question not only the meaning of his own work, but the implications of technology for the future of man and the natural world. "In both my own foreword, and the one by Walter Cronkite, there is mention of concern about how much longer we can rely on technology to solve technology''s problems," says Sexton.
"I''ve always found the print itself an object of beauty, and sometimes the visual intensification contained in a photo is a beautiful experience. My objective has been to follow beauty, to let the photos unfold and reveal in my own mind how they fit in to my desire to protect and preserve the environment."
"I didn''t want to paint a negative picture," he adds, "but I did want to point out hopefully sooner rather than later there will be a change in our behavior as human beings. I don''t think innovation can keep up with the ramifications discussed in the book."
Beyond its deeper philosophic concerns, Sexton''s new book pays tribute to mankind''s inherent aesthetic sense--the impulse to create objects that are both beautiful and functional.
"The photos have a sense of mystery. And my intent has been to respond to that mystery and beauty," says Sexton. "I''ve always found the print itself an object of beauty, and sometimes the visual intensification contained in a photo is a beautiful experience. My objective has been to follow beauty, to let the photos unfold and reveal in my own mind how they fit in to my desire to protect and preserve the environment."
John Sexton shares his insights at a slideshow, lecture and booksigning Sunday (3-5pm) at the Monterey Institute for International Studies'' Irvine Auditorium in the McCone Building, Pierce and Jefferson, Monterey. The event, sponsored by the Monterey Museum of Art, costs $5 for members and $10 for non-members. Call 372-5477 for reservations or more info. Places of Power is available online at www.VentanaEditions.com and www.Amazon.com. It also may be ordered through Ventana Editions by calling (888) 390-4545 or 659-4377.