Richard Sexton and I share an interest in and an abiding affection for photographing Louisiana, the city of New Orleans and Cuba. I had wanted to meet him since purchasing his book, New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence (Chronicle Books, 1993), which was recently reissued along with Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road (Chronicle Books, 1999). Our conversation took place at his studio in Louisiana this past spring.
Elegance and Decadence is a unique architectural photography book in that the photographs are not staged for the camera. As Sexton writes in the preface, the photographs record “the sensibilities…of those that live there…and are content to live in architectural relics of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.”
Many of the residences in Elegance and Decadence are the homes of artists, architects and antiques dealers, including the homes of photographers Josephine Sacabo and George Dureau. Architectural historian Randolph Delehanty writes in the book’s narrative: “Character and soul are what make New Orleans not just a decadent city, but a still stylish one…New Orleans pursues a way of living that is both decadent and elegant.” Sexton closes the preface with these words: “New Orleans will continue to remain elegant and decadent forever.”
Richard Sexton is a native Southerner, born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1954 and raised in Colquitt. He began photographing at Emory University while majoring in political science. Sexton briefly studied at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1977-78 but was disappointed in the curriculum’s lack of technical courses and discipline. He worked for a year in a black-and-white photo lab in San Francisco, spending eight hours a day processing film and printing negatives. He says, “A chemical darkroom is a wonderful and mysterious place, but a place where visual stimulation is in absentia. I decided that I was going to have to make a living making photographs. That decision launched a lengthy commercial career.”
Although he claims “pure commercial photography never had an allure” for him, Sexton’s interest in architecture led him to a successful career as an architectural photographer — one that has also allowed him to pursue personal photographic projects. He describes the advantage of fine art photography as being able to photograph subjects of his own choosing. His definition of “making it” as a photographer is being hired for a project that he wants to photograph for himself.
The 1970s saw the demise of the weekly picture magazines LIFE and LOOK, but photographic books became more common. Living in San Francisco, Sexton successfully pitched ideas to Chronicle Books. His first book was American Style: Classic Product Design from Airstream to Zippo (1987). His second book, The Cottage Book (1989), “documented the tradition of cottage living and design in the San Francisco Bay area.” Sexton and Delehanty collaborated on In Victorian Style, a book about San Francisco’s Victorian architecture, prior to collaborating on New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence.
When Sexton moved to San Francisco in 1977, he was planning on staying in California and envisioned himself as a Southern expatriate. He also told himself that if he had to return to the South, he was going to live in New Orleans, where he could remain a Southern expatriate because it’s “really a Caribbean city and only part of the United States because of a geopolitical accident.” In 1991, Sexton and his family did move to New Orleans, viewing it as “a way to move to the South without really being there.” At the time, he and Delehanty had already contracted with Chronicle Books for Elegance and Decadence.
Sexton’s choice was not career move, but nevertheless his career has flourished during his 20 years in New Orleans. 1999 saw the publication of Sexton’s second Louisiana book, Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road. (The River Road is the narrow highway that parallels both sides of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, the location of many antebellum homes.) Sexton was the book’s photographer, writer and design overseer. The cover photograph is “Staircase at Ashland/Belle Helene Plantation,” his best-selling image and most expensive print. The 20×24-inch color pigment print was launched with an edition of 25 that sold out in one year, and the price for the last image in that edition was $5,000. The price of the first print in a new 24×30 edition of 10 started at $8,000. At the time of our interview in April 2012, three 24×30 prints had sold, and number four was available for $11,000.
More of this article can be read in the Fall 2012 issue.