If we want the medium of photography to grow, or even survive, we have to stop thinking about cameras and start thinking about art. Abstraction, questions about volume versus flatness, and Conceptualism are all old issues in painting but photographers have hardly touched them. We are trapped in the early 19th Century, when an image was but a manual reproduction of a visualized thing.

A strong knowledge of French painter Henri Matisse would be a good weapon against boring, purely representational photography. The painting above, made in 1914, foresees color field painting that came decades later and takes Manet’s experiments with flatness a bold step forward. The same goes for the Matisse below, painted the same year.


William S. Burroughs famously commented that writing was 50 years behind painting. If so, photography is 150 years behind. Or more. Nor is realism necessarily the problem. Few photographs boast the psychological insight of a Velazquez portraiture such as his dwarf portraits from the first half of the 17th Century.


Part of the problem is semantic. We photographers increasingly use terms like “capture” (as a noun) to describe a photograph. Artists talk of “producing” or “production,” as if creating art had something to do with “products” or “industry.”

A second problem is that our photography professors are hung up on f-stops and shutter speeds, or megapixels and software. This is not by choice. It’s because the vast majority of them have never studied photographic history, much less art history. One thing is clear: no artist in the history of the world has achieved greatness without embracing what came before, attacking the disposable crap being produced at present, and inventing something new.

The 21st Century photographer can learn more studying the collected work of Claude Monet, Francisco Goya (below), Jackson Pollock or Anselm Kiefer than by aping the photographic vocabulary force fed to us by National Geographic and the historical straightjacket strapped to our backs by LIFE Magazine and the WPA photographers.


See John Sevigny’s series “Nomads” on Guernica, where one hundred years after Lewis W. Hine started work on his Ellis Island portraits, Sevigny seeks to document Latin American immigrants, hoping to give faces to the catch-all masses lambasted by Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, and others who equate immigration with crime.

John Sevigny is a photographer and writer who was born in Miami and lives and works in Mexico. He is a former correspondent for the Associated Press, and for EFE News, the official information agency of the Spanish government. He has published photographs and articles in the Houston Chronicle, the San Antonio Express-News, the Dallas Morning News, and many other newspapers and magazines. As a fine art photographer, he has participated in solo and group exhibitions in Florida, California, Louisiana, New York, Minnesota and Illinois in the United States, and in Monterrey, Saltillo, and Zacatecas in Mexico. He has a blog called Gone City.

Copyright 2009 John Sevigny

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