Visual Influences Series:
Michael Sebastian

Alec Soth, Joshua, Angola State Prison, Louisiana 2002

I like many of Soth’s images, and his connections to his three predecessors are apparent. But he does far more portraiture than at least Shore or Sternfeld. I love his straightforward style, technical mastery, and keen eye for the quirky or discordant. In this image, though, what stands out is the look of hardened sadness in the subject’s eyes. I find myself feeling what this young man must feel, contemplating other paths he might have taken, and the long years ahead of him in the hellhole of Angola State Prison (I’m from Louisiana, so I know what that means).

William Eggleston. The link (left) is to a 12-year-old Salon article about him, among the better descriptions I’ve read of what his work is about. Linking to specific images at the Eggleston Trust is difficult, but there’s a selection of work there to view from each of his portfolios and monographs. Given that he’s the alpha dog of contemporary color fine-art photography, it’s a short hop from admiration to adulation and cliché. Foremost among those clichés is the hoary summation that Eggleston glorifies the banal and everyday. While that’s likely true, I prefer to think he made it respectable to compose in color, making color an integral part of the composition rather than simply a flashy hide stretched over black-and-white bones. There’s also a lot of darkness in his work; his photographs of people, especially, nearly always contain a sense of foreboding or tension, or an awareness of issues felt, but unseen beyond the edge of the frame.

Stephen Shore, Main Street, Twin Falls, Idaho, July 19, 1973

Uncommon Places was one of the first "serious" photography books I bought; it’s a landmark for me. It’s said of Shore that he, like Eggleston, documented in deadpan fashion the banal and everyday. True. But his technical mastery elevates the work. I love his use of lines (storefronts, streets, power lines) in many of his images to move the viewer’s eye around; with everything overlaid by the rich, lush color and saturated detail only a large-format camera can capture. I revisit Uncommon Places frequently, and find myself slack-jawed before the simple beauty of the work.

Joel Sternfeld, McLean, Virginia, 1978

What caught my eyebefore I learned the exculpatory back-storywas the utter incongruity of the scene. But examining the photograph more closely, I was blown away by his brilliant use of color in the composition. Overall, it’s a warm-toned image, as you’d expect to see in autumn in Virginia. Notice the three main areas of orange color: the pumpkins and fragments at foreground; the neatly stacked pumpkins in middle ground; and the orange flames in the background. The eye connects the three areas in a sweep from front to back, almost as if an orange river were flowing toward the viewer. Sternfeld is sometimes compared to Shorewhich makes some sense given the superficial similarity of their work, and their 3-year age differenceand his connection to both Shore and Eggleston is apparent. But I find his work more lyrical and complex, and less strictly literal, than that of Shore; and more technically accomplished than Eggleston’s.

Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Michael Sebastian for our Visual Influences Series.
View a selection of Sebastian’s photography featured on One, One Thousand in December 2010.
You can also view more of Sebastian’s work at his website:

"The greatest thing a human soul ever does in this world is to see something, and tell what it saw in a plain way. Hundreds of people can talk for one who can think, but thousands can think for one who can see. To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion, all in one." John Ruskin

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One Response to Visual Influences Series:
Michael Sebastian

  1. Pingback: Catching up some good news | Michael Sebastian

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