Josephine Sacabo: Lessons From The Shadows

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.  I hope they have done justice to their sources and that they will, for a moment, ‘stay the shadows of contentment too short lived’ (Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz).”    —Josephine Sacabo

El Arbolito,  Silver Gelatin Print, From Susana San Juan,  © Josephine Sacabo Image Courtesy Polk Museum of Art

El Arbolito, Silver Gelatin Print, From Susana San Juan, ©Josephine Sacabo Image Courtesy Polk Museum of Art

Josephine Sacabo is a New Orleans based photographer currently exhibiting at the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida. Sacabo uses poetry as inspiration for her photography, created with alternative photographic processes. Sacabo’s photography is included in the permanent collections of the George Eastman House, the International Center of Photography, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and la Bibliothéque Nationale, Paris, France.

In person, Sacabo is remarkably humble and generous with her time and knowledge. I would note she is also self-deprecating and humorous. During a recent artist talk she shared her inspiration sources for the series of images on display at the Polk.

Sacabo named two women whose writings had inspired some of her photography: Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, a 17th century nun, self-taught scholar and acclaimed writer of the Latin American colonial period and a staunch advocate for women's rights; Clarice Lispector, a Brazilian writer acclaimed internationally for her innovative novels and short stories. 

“I have always tried to tried to walk the line between the secular and the religious," said Sacabo.

Josephine Sacabo at Polk Museum of Art

Josephine Sacabo at Polk Museum of Art

Her talk was interspersed as much with these authors quotes as images of her own photography. Sacabo said of Lispector, “she speaks of the most obvious things that you see every day, I love her for that. As I read her work, I also began to notice the ordinary. And for the first time actually, I did something that is not a narrative of any kind. It is just photographs of things that I saw and loved. That is the secret. My kitchen window in New Orleans on a rainy day. A tabletop. The simplicity of my kitchen table, the light through my bathroom window. And I began to photograph these things.”

"What I love about Clarice Spector is not only how Intellectual she was, but there was a tenderness to her writing: I offer these flowers to whatever hurts inside you. It is hard to imagine putting that more tenderly or more beautifully," said Sacabo.

She has an impressive photography career, she is a masterful storyteller, creating series/ portfolios of photographic works inspired by writings, the ethereal sound of music, or in one case, a fantasy architecture, an alternative to the physical architecture of a female’s confinement.

Sacabo’s website gives a description of her photographic processes, and how she transitioned through these processes: Her early portfolios are toned silver gelatin prints. Later and current works are photopolymer gravures printed on handmade Japanese tissue and chine-colléd on to velvet rag paper. All images are printed by the artist.

Sacabo’s transition from silver to gravure began as photography moved from chemical to digital. Her silver gelatin papers of choice were repeatedly discontinued. “From the moment I made my first gravure,” Sacabo explains, “I realized I’ve been trying to do this for thirty years in the darkroom…jumping through every hoop I can think of to come up with this effect. This is what I’ve been looking for. And there’s no way they can make it obsolete.”

The World Beyond 2  , Wet Collodion Tintype, from   Juana and the Structures of Reverie  , ©Josephine Sacabo, Image courtesy Polk Museum of Art.

The World Beyond 2, Wet Collodion Tintype, from Juana and the Structures of Reverie, ©Josephine Sacabo, Image courtesy Polk Museum of Art.

First developed in the 1830s, photogravure is a print making process whereby light sensitive chemicals are used to etch a photographic image onto a copper plate. The plate is then inked and pressed on to paper to produce an image.

Photopolymer gravures, a modern adaptation of the 19th century process, uses UV light and water instead of chemicals to create the plate, which is then inked and pressed in the traditional way. There are many steps in creating the final print, all crucial to Sacabo’s manifestation of the image.

Audience questions gave even more insight into Sacabo’s photography and how she photographs, revealing again, her generous spirit; “I would love it if someone would ask me questions, I am open to telling you all the secrets.“

Of a projected image: “I found these two kids in San Miguel, who perform in the main square. They take people around for money, like the ghost tours they have in New Orleans. These two kids dress up like that and they take people and tell them the different sights and sounds of San Miguel at night. So I asked them if they would come to my studio and let me photograph them. And they did.”  

Why tintype: “It wasn’t hard enough to do photoengraving, I had to discover tintypes, which is the most difficult photographic process of all to get right. You can’t rely on it… if it is humid it has a mind of its own. So, you just save the ones you like and throw away the rest of them.

Normally a tintype is done in the camera itself, but what makes it a tintype is the collodion. It took me a year, but I developed a system where I can create images at home in my computer. I can put them on transparent film and I can take them in the darkroom, do the tintype but instead of exposing them in the camera I expose them in the enlarger, then do a contact print.”

How did you get to be so creative: “When I was young, I loved poetry and I studied literature in college. Photography nothing. I never took a photo class or had anything to do with visual arts. I was an actress for a while and had always been in that kind of group. Photography came into my life completely by accident, and it really hit the spot. I don’t know why.” (Sacabo was introduced to photography by accident, by an American neighbor, while living in France)

Have you ever considered digital photography: "I do now use digital photography on the front end of everything I do. I take pictures with a digital camera, with my phone a lot of the time, then transform them into whatever process I am working in. I have the best of both worlds because I have a camera with me all the time. Whereas before I used to work with a Pentax 6 x 7, a huge machine for a person like me. Digital capture yes, but I don’t care for a digital printing of my work. Some people can do it, I can’t."

Photoshop: “Yes, because when I used to put negatives together, in the darkroom, I would have to put one negative, then the other, make a picture, look at it… I would go through a whole box of paper. Now I can do all of that on the screen (in Photoshop) and then throw it away (laughter). It has been very freeing.”

How she discovered photography: “My husband and I were living in a tinyvillage in the south of France, where we had bought a house for fifteen hundred dollars, which tells what size house we had. We had lent it to a friend before we arrived and he had left his camera. I was an actress at the time, and had been working in London. My husband was writing and writing, me the actress, I was knitting. An English friend was near, a photographer living in the same village, he showed me how to use the forgotten camera; I wasn’t that interested until he showed me how to develop my first contact sheet. That was my only photography lesson, but he taught me technique. My husband made me a darkroom in our bathroom, with our bathtub underneath. I have a picture of him taking a bath with my enlarger and equipment above his head.”

Sacabo was equally generous after the talk, inviting some local photographers working in similar media to visit her in her New Orleans studio, and sharing titles from Clarice Lispector’s work. The Polk Museum exhibition is large; curiously there are no titles next to the images which are arranged by series. Several of her photographs have script below the image, etched into the plate before printing. The work is of exceptional quality, created by processes that are challenging. For those interested in these photographic processes, you will be impressed. For others, appreciative of quality artwork, the same. All works are printed by Sacabo.

Suggested reading from Josephine Sacabo

Suggested reading from Josephine Sacabo

Author's footnote: If you are traveling to the show locally: Because of an accident on the main highway, we traveled the back road, state road 574 which traverses Plant City, winds past the Publix birthday cake and candles atop the water tower, past large trees and churches. A photographer’s paradise.