Interview: Josephine Sacabo - Mysterious Beauty
Some years ago, upon entering the doors of A Gallery for Fine Photography in New Orleans, I had the opportunity of discovering the photography of Josephine Sacabo. I was unfamiliar, but entranced all the same. I took in what I could while I was there, pouring over the available prints they had. Coincidentally, shortly thereafter her name came up several times from friends whose sensibilities I was quite attuned to, and they were going on and on about the virtues of using the photogravure printing process seen in her work and developed aesthetic. A purveyor of this historical and photo-mechanical process, she made the transition from gelatin silver prints to photogravure during the takeover of digital, which resulted in the disappearance of her favorite papers. One cannot help but be pulled in by the subtle and elegant details brought out by the photogravure process, that of which Josephine is a master. I became enveloped in searching for more of her work, and found that the majority of her collections could also be found in book form. And not just any books either, but those that successfully echo the trademarks of ethereal grace in everything she creates. This is what it’s like to discover treasure - the kind that speaks to you in hushed tones and feeds your soul.
Sacabo divides her time between New Orleans and Mexico. Both places inform her work, resulting in imagery that is as dreamlike, surreal, and romantic as the places that she calls home. Born in Laredo, Texas, in 1944, she was educated at Bard College in New York. Prior to coming to New Orleans, Sacabo lived and worked extensively in France and England. Her earlier work was in the photo-journalistic tradition and influenced by Robert Frank, Josef Koudelka, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. She now works in a very subjective, introspective style, using poetry as the genesis for her work.
Sacabo’s many portfolios are visual manifestations of the written word, and she lists poets as her most important influences, including Rilke, Baudelaire, Pedro Salinas, Vicente Huidobro, Juan Rulfo, Mallarmé, and Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz. Her images transfer the viewer into a world of constructed beauty.
During her 36-year career her work has been featured in over 40 gallery and museum exhibitions in the U.S., Europe, and Mexico. She has been the recipient of multiple awards and is included in the permanent collections of the George Eastman House, New Orleans Museum of Art, the International Center of Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and la Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, France.
Josephine Sacabo’s work is that of mysterious beauty and romanticism, and it is with great pride and happiness that I’ve had the opportunity to interview Josephine about her imagery. The timing could not have been better, as she has recently opened the stunning exhibition, Moments of Being, at A Gallery for Fine Photography, coupled with the trade book release of Structures of Reverie, her tenth monograph to date, available through Luna Press. Please enjoy and immerse yourself in the words and images of this masterful visual artist. Connect with Josephine on her Website and Instagram!
Michael Kirchoff: Thank you for joining me, Josephine, I’m thrilled to have this chance to interview you for Analog Forever Magazine. Every photographer experiences that spark that begins to drive them into creating their own voice in photography. How did you get your start?
Josephine Sacabo: In the late 60’s my husband and I had a theatre company called The Bird In Hand Theatre in London, and we did plays all over the city, and in the summer we would drive to the south of France where we had a tiny house we had bought for $1500 and were restoring it little by little. One summer we had lent it to a friend, and when we arrived I found that he had left a 35mm SLR Pentax behind, so I took it to an English photographer friend in the village who had a small darkroom and asked him to show me how to work the camera. He said I had to learn the whole process, so he showed me how to take the photo, develop the film, and make a contact sheet in his darkroom. From the moment I saw the images on the contact sheet coming up in the developer, I was hooked. So I bought a small enlarger and my husband built me a retractable shelf over our bathtub where I spent the rest of the summer developing film and making prints.
MK: Is there anything or anyone from your past that you feel has had a dramatic influence on you or how you’re images are informed?
JS: I was born in Laredo, Texas, on the Mexican border, and Spanish is my first language. My entire childhood was spent in that magical culture and has had a huge influence on my work. I can bring that wonderful childhood magic back when my work is going well no matter where I am. I had to leave to retrieve that feeling, but now I've come around the long way back.
MK: What is it that drives you as a creator?
JS: I guess you could say a very deep need to speak my part. I believe in art as a means of transcendence and connection. My images are simply what I’ve made from what I have been given in my life – both the very beautiful and the very painful as well. I hope they have done justice to their sources.
MK: I bring this up time and time again because I feel strongly that it is a key component of building a creative force within ourselves. Being that you live and work in both New Orleans, Louisiana and San Miguel Allende, Mexico, how does your environment influence the photographs you make? What was it that lured you to San Miguel Allende initially?
JS: My environments both have a huge influence on my work. They are beautiful to begin with. I live in the historic heart of both places where the architecture is spectacular. Every time I walk out my door I feel surrounded by the beauty of it. Both places are visual delights. There’s also very special cultures with rich histories in both places and the people are wonderful. Not to mention the sunsets and the summer storms, and the music.
MK: Your earlier works were within the photojournalistic realm of photography. How did this work evolve into the photographs you create today? Was it a conscious choice or something that occurred more organically over time?
JS: I began my work in the U.S. as a documentary street photographer and disciple of Cartier-Bresson and Robert Frank. I worked on the streets of the French Quarter where I live and was amazed by the richness of the life on those streets. It was, in fact, a sanctuary for all kinds of people and activities. The picturesque seemed infinite to me at first – musicians, fortune tellers, tap dancers, strippers, eccentrics of every stripe. At the time I was reading Baudelaire’s great Spleen de Paris, about wandering the streets of Paris, and New Orleans seemed to me as much a city of symbols and correspondences as his Paris of the 19th century. And I was able to capture a lot of this life with a fresh vision.
And then with time, and I mean years, as I looked more closely at my subject matter, I began to see the darker side emerge more and more. It was there all along, I’m sure, but I was so taken by the novelty I didn’t see it. Once I became aware of it I became reluctant to contribute to it by making images of it; I began to feel that all I was doing as an artist was acknowledging the despair around me and shouting it from the rooftops of magazines and galleries. I began to feel that if I was going to photograph someone who is suffering and who has little or no choice in the matter, then it better be with the express purpose of changing his circumstances or enlarging compassion toward him. Otherwise I would be piling suffering upon suffering and must hold myself accountable. I want to say that this was a very personal choice. I know there are photographers out there who manage this dilemma with honesty and grace - Salgado for example - but I knew it could not be my way.
Around that time I was invited to a friends apartment for a Mardi Gras party in the French Quarter, and when I walked in I was stunned by the evocative beauty of it. I began sharing the space with her although I had no idea what I would do there. I started photographing some friends in the natural light and letting the poetry I was reading guide me in a loose way, and I have worked that way ever since.
MK: Clearly, in the early days you were using film and film cameras. Do you still use film in the process of making photographs, or is it now the analog methods of printing that capture your attention most? Do you see yourself using film into the future, and do you feel that it should remain as a tool for future generations to explore?
JS: Film has always been a part of my process and I hope it will always be available to me, and generations after me. My work now involves film, digital, and Guttenberg! For a long time I carried my Pentax 6x7 around with me until it became too heavy and cumbersome, and then I coerced my husband into carrying it for me on location for a while, but after a summer traveling and shooting all over Mexico I realized it was too much for both of us. Now I often keep my phone or a small camera in my pocket for capturing those unforeseen fleeting moments which usually end up combined with a film image in the end.
MK: Since your photography workflow has moved you away from creating your most current images in an analog way, it is clear that you have brought about an incredible amount of attention to a wonderfully analog way of printing your photographs using the photogravure process. How did this start and evolve into making your fine prints in this way? What about the process do you love?
JS: I'd read somewhere that a workshop was happening in photo engraving at Flatbush Press, in Austin, and it sounded interesting to me, so I took it for 2 days. It was amazing. The moment I pulled the first paper off the plate and saw the image it was just like what had happened to me with the contact sheet in France so long ago. An epiphany! I realized that this look was exactly what I had spent 30 years in the darkroom hoping to achieve – seeing the image ‘in’ the paper and not ‘on’ it. I love everything about the process – working in the light, the beautiful papers I can use, the colors of the ink I can create. And then of course pulling the paper off the plate on the press. Bliss.
MK: You have a very close relationship with the written word. This has manifested itself in an affinity for poetry and your response to it, often as a way of illustrating specific texts. How did this connection start, and do you feel that this will always be a way of working in the future?
JS: Poetry has always meant a lot to me. I thought I would grow up to be a poet someday. In 1987, I starting working in my studio with models and natural light and I felt like a very special world was being created that I couldn’t describe in words. It was all very new to me. Then one night I starting reading a new Stephen Mitchell translation of Rilke’s Duino Elegies and felt that these elegies were saying in beautiful words what I had been seeing and feeling in my studio. I was able to complete the portfolio with Rilke’s words as my guides. This has happened many times since and the correspondence between words and images remains a fascination for me.
MK: It appears that the majority of your work culminates in the publication of a book of each body of work. When you conceive of, and begin working on a specific collection of images, is the concept always to have the work released in book form? What is it about publishing your images in book form that you want others to respond to?
JS: I love doing books and hope to go on doing it with every major body of work. I love the idea of my work becoming a part of someone’s intimate life. Something they can turn to when they need it. When I think of what Heinrich Kuhn’s and Josef Sudek’s books on my coffee table have done for me, I can only hope that mine could one day do the same for someone else somewhere.
MK: Being a fixture of the New Orleans photographic community, you also have a hand in giving back to your community with your relationship to the New Orleans Photo Alliance and the PhotoNOLA festival. Is community engagement a key part of who you are as an artist? What do you get out of working with others in this way?
JS: It’s very gratifying for me to participate in some productive way in my photo community. New Orleans has a very special and vital photography community. I particularly love working with young photographers and writers before they enter the murky waters of the art world. They are so close to their deepest and most authentic feelings, and they speak their truths so movingly. I always learn from them and value their responses enormously.
MK: Once you have maintained a successful career as a photographer, is there ever any pressure to outdo yourself or continue to prove yourself?
JS: Every time I start a new project. Stage fright.
MK: What do you feel is the best way for you to grow as an artist? Are there any fears behind treading new waters?
JS: By being courageous and really following where my heart leads, without worrying about what others may think or feel. And doing whatever feels right at the moment, even if it means burning it later.
MK: You’ve been at this for quite some time, and I wonder if you have a mantra of set of ideas that you feel future generations would benefit from? Any advice for the beginning photographer out there?
JS: There is great pressure in the art world for artists to “reflect their times” - for their work to be relevant to the fashions of the great Now. But, that Now and its fashions are over in a flash and then there’s a new Now, and another and another until Now ends up being a voracious open mouthed monster that has to be fed non-stop. And what we lose in the process is the witness of the individual imagination - the most reliable one of all. In fact, each one of us is the Now no matter what. Our impressions, our sincere responses to our world, our skills and courage, our loves, are the measure of who we are and we are what constitutes our times. Watch, listen, care. then take what you need and go - to your studios, or the woods, or the city, or wherever your heart leads you. And there create your Now.
If we go about our work the other way around we risk ending up with a very fashionable rack of gloves without hands, to borrow a beautiful metaphor from Kandinsky.
MK: You have already created an incredible legacy of photographs for generations to admire and appreciate. What do you want people to take away from your art and messages it offers?
JS: Transcendence, hopefully, and most importantly connection to your fellow man.
MK: Normally, about now I’d ask you what’s next, but you have already just released another book and are in the middle of another beautiful exhibition at A Gallery for Fine Photography, in New Orleans. Could you tell us about these? Do you now relax and allow yourself time to form new ideas organically, or are you already in the midst planning for more?
JS: My book is called Structures of Reverie and it is the trade edition of a handmade original done with photogravures.
This work was inspired by a magical space in Mexico, called Jarral De Berrio – the ruins of what was once one of the largest and most elegant haciendas in Mexico guided. My protagonist for this story is a woman who invents her freedom by creating an imaginary architecture made of light, scraps of memory, hopes and dreams – a permeable architecture where nothing is confined. It is dedicated to Juana La Loca , the supposed ‘mad’ queen of Spain in the 16th century, who for political motives was imprisoned for 46 years by her husband, father and son in an architecture of darkness and stone in which she was to die broken and alone.
The exhibition is called Moments of Being and it is comprised of 20 photogravures on Japanese tissue. I would describe the images as snapshots of the life within. Echoes of thoughts and feelings expressed in the only terms I really understand, which are those of light and shadow and the softening of edges. The things expressed have already happened. Here they are remembered tenderly, in the repose of passion.
I am already deep into my next project, but I don’t want to say much about it yet, so as not to jinx it in any way. But it takes place in Mexico once again. I’m hard at work, but in a ‘relaxed’ kind of way. For now……
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Michael Kirchoff is a photographic artist, independent curator and juror, and advocate for the photographic arts. He has been a juror for Photolucida’s Critical Mass, and has reviewed portfolios for the Los Angeles Center of Photography’s Exposure Reviews and CENTER’s Review Santa Fe. Michael has been a contributing writer for Lenscratch, Light Leaked, and Don’t Take Pictures magazine. In addition, he spent ten years (2006-2016) on the Board of the American Photographic Artists in Los Angeles (APA/LA), producing artist lectures, as well as business and inspirational events for the community. Currently, he is also Editor-in-Chief at Analog Forever magazine, and is the Founding Editor for the online photographer interview website, Catalyst: Interviews. Previously, Michael spent over four years as Editor at BLUR magazine. Connect with Michael on his Website and Instagram!