Publishing History

In 1984 I developed the concept for a photo essay consisting of a diverse selection of noted American products that had become defining components of contemporary American popular culture. At first I thought it should be a magazine feature, but soon realized the era of the big picture magazines was largely over. To the extent that any vestige of that world still existed, it didn’t exist in San Francisco, where I was based at the time. With the help of Thomas Ingalls, a prominent San Francisco-based book designer, I succeeded in selling this concept to Chronicle Books, a rapidly emerging San Francisco publisher noted for producing innovative, and frequently quirky, illustrated books. This book, my first, was titled American Style: Classic Product Design from Airstream to Zippo. Published in 1987, it began a relationship with Chronicle Books that continues to the present and expanded my career from that of a commercial architectural photographer, to an author, as well. Book projects would become a mainstay of my career thereafter.

In 1989, Chronicle published my second title, The Cottage Book, which documented the tradition of cottage living and design in the San Francisco Bay area. Two years later I completed In the Victorian Style, in collaboration with architectural historian Randolph Delehanty. This title was devoted to the domestic Victorian architecture for which San Francisco is so well known.

In 1991, I moved from San Francisco to New Orleans. Prior to my arrival in New Orleans, I had already contracted with Chronicle to create a book about my new place of residence. The concept centered on a thematic photo essay interpreting a city that many famous artists and writers had left their mark on well before me. Randolph Delehanty agreed to collaborate on the project, writing an introduction and extended captions to my photographs. Neither of us had any substantial experience or expertise regarding New Orleans prior to this undertaking. The book, New Orleans: Elegance and Decadence, published in 1993, was met with critical acclaim. Susan Larson, then the Times-Picayune’s book reviewer, gave it her “best of the year” award and Dr. Patricia Brady, then director of publications for The Historic New Orleans Collection, called it “the best photographic book ever done on the city.” The Rounce and Coffin Club in Los Angeles bestowed an Award of Merit for its design. The public seemed to agree: Elegance and Decadence had six hardcover printings, and a revised edition was printed in 2003, which is now in its third printing. It also inspired a television feature produced by Peggy Scott Laborde for the HGTV network. In the fall of 2013, Elegance and Decadence celebrated its 20th year in print and remains in print today.

Parallel Utopias: The Quest for Community, followed Elegance and Decadence in 1995. This title was a return to the methodology of my first two books where I was both photographer and writer. Parallel Utopias focuses on two planned postwar communities-Sea Ranch in northern California and Seaside in Florida-as positive planning examples, to create an overarching visual and verbal critique of the American postwar built environment.

In 1997 I began work on, Vestiges of Grandeur: The Plantations of Louisiana’s River Road, published in the fall of 1999. This title, the companion volume to Elegance and Decadence, represents a culmination of the thematic organization and interpretive photo essay approach that proved successful in Elegance and Decadence. I had a solid track record by this point and was given significant leeway with Vestiges of Grandeur--I served as photographer, writer, photo editor, and oversaw the book’s design, levels of creative control seldom granted to an author of illustrated works.

In 2000, I created all the contemporary photographs for Gardens of New Orleans: Exquisite Excess authored by Lake Douglas, formerly of the Arts Council of New Orleans, and Jeannette Hardy, the former Times-Picayune garden editor; published by Chronicle Books, Spring 2001.

In the fall of 2004, Chronicle Books published a postcard book of photographs, which included selected images from all my Louisiana titles to date, entitled New Orleans and the River Road.

Also in 2004, I self-published an art project I had worked on for over a decade, The Highway of Temptation and Redemption: A Gothic Travelogue in Two Dimensions. This project consisted of simply composed photographs of road signs taken over several years along the back roads between the Florida panhandle and southwest Georgia. The photographs were complemented by a written travelogue that formed a choppy, but continuous narrative. The work was presented as a fine art handmade book, which was excerpted in Louisiana Cultural Vistas, and was the basis for my first major museum exhibit at The Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. This exhibition was on view from April to August 2005.

During a similar time frame, from the early 1990s to 2006, I worked on a personal project creating black and white landscape photographs of the gulf coast, from the Mississippi River to the Florida panhandle. In the fall of 2005, Chronicle Books offered to publish a fine art photography book based on this series of work. The book, Terra Incognita: Photographs of America’s Third Coast, was published in September 2007. This was my eighth title to date with Chronicle Books, but it was my first fine art title. A traveling exhibit opened at the Ogden Museum of Southern Art concurrent with the book’s release in October 2007. This exhibit has since traveled to Ogden Watercolor for the museum’s inaugural exhibit, with New York painter Hunt Slonem. It then traveled to Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, Mississippi; the South Arkansas Art Center in El Dorado, Arkansas; the Polk Museum of Art in Lakeland, Florida; the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach, Florida; and the Pensacola Museum of Art in Penascola, Florida.

2007 also saw the publication of Rosemary Beach, which was published by Pelican Publishing, Gretna, Louisiana. This book features an extensive photo essay of Rosemary Beach, Florida, a significant and influential New Urbanism community designed by the firm Duany Plater-Zyberk that draws many of its architectural inspirations from New Orleans and St. Augustine, Florida.

In 2012, New Roads and Old Rivers: Louisiana’s Historic Pointe Coupee Parish was published by LSU Press featuring my photographs and text by Randy Harelson, with Brian Costello. Pointe Coupee Parish is one of three indigenous permanent French settlements in Louisiana with New Orleans and Natchitoches being the other two. The photography in New Roads and Old Rivers forms a comprehensive photo essay of the historic architecture, the cultivated and natural landscapes, and the cultural traditions of this storied rural parish.

New Roads and Old Rivers was followed in 2014 by Creole World: Photographs of New Orleans and the Latin Caribbean Sphere, published by The Historic New Orleans Collection. Creole World is my most ambitious photographic project to date. Its genesis dates back to a 1974 car trip from Georgia to Bolivia and back. This formative trip introduced me to New Orleans, the only North American stop on the trip, and it also afforded my first opportunity to seriously pursue photography. The culmination of the project began in 2006 and was completed in 2012 with travel to Argentina, Panama, Ecuador, Cuba, Colombia, and Haiti during that time. The multi-layered photo essay weaves together the historical, cultural, and visual connections between New Orleans and the broader Creole world in Latin America and the Caribbean. As with Terra Incognita, Creole World is both a book and a traveling exhibit. The inaugural installation was at The Historic New Orleans Collection, on view from April 14, to December 7, 2014. The exhibit has since traveled to Frost Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami, Florida, from June 13, to August 23, 2015. Then to Meadows Museum of Art at Centenary College, in Shreveport, Louisiana, from February 12, through May 7, 2016. The most recent venue to date on its travel schedule was the Hilliard Museum of Art, in Lafayette, Louisiana, where it was on view from June 10 to August 20, 2016.

My most recent project, Enigmatic Stream: Industrial Landscapes of the Lower Mississippi River, is also published by The Historic New Orleans Collection, in September 2019. Like Creole World and Terra Incognita this book is accompanied by an exhibit, which runs from September 17, 2019, to April 5, 2020, at the Collection. I began Enigmatic Stream in the early 2000s, only a couple years after the publication of Vestiges of Grandeur. Enigmatic Stream covers the same geographic region of the lower river, but the focus shifts from 18th and 19th century plantation sites to the heavy industry of the 20th Century.

I now have over 300,000 books in print and my work has seen publication in magazines and newspapers in the United States and Europe, My publishing history forms the foundation of my photographic career and were it not for the thematic, lengthy photo essays that only books can provide, I don’t know that I would still be photographing today.

—Richard Sexton