When I heard last month that photographer, friend, and former Tallahassee Democrat reporter John Sevigny, 54, had died in Mexico City, I had a sinking feeling he had met a violent end.
Probably caught in the crossfire between rival drug lords. Hey, he had witnessed shootouts in the past. Or he might have been killed by one of the gang members he photographed. He could have been stabbed during a random mugging or kidnapping attempt. Sevigny had survived one kidnapping. He always lived life on the edge, down in the trenches.
That’s just the way he did his work.
As his friend and former Tallahassee Democrat reporter Andrew Dunn wrote in a blurb for Sevigny’s first book of photos: “Sevigny’s art is like that of a deep underwater documentary, shining light on the horrific and dangerous creatures that inhabit the bottom of the world. Yet, amongst the serpentine smiles and furtive eyes there is an alluring beauty, a siren’s call to the wayward and those acquainted with the night. Very few artists have the ability to capture such a paradox. Even fewer truly understand it. John Sevigny is one."
Later, I found out that Sevigny had had a massive stroke and slipped into a coma. He died in a hospital bed on Nov. 9. His organs were donated to others and his body was cremated.
I am glad he wasn’t slain, but his passing is still hard to accept a month later.
Dad died young, too
“John was in his 30s when (his father) Richard died of a cardiac arrest brought on by a severe asthma attack,” Sevigny’s mother and Leon County resident Rusty Ennemoser said. “John talked of dreams in which Richard was clearly conversing with him. Partly because of that, he told me, he was not afraid of death. John always told me if something happened to him, he didn’t want anyone to say, ‘Poor John.’”
Dunn credits the father with giving Sevigny a lifelong love for art and master painters such as Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Velazquez, and Goya.
“His dad, who carved gravestones and memorial monuments in Miami, put him on art at an early age,” Dunn said. “He often spoke about his dad as a troubled and eccentric genius. But as with a lot of things, he spoke about emotional things with humor and probably less emotion than he should have. But it was always there, at the surface.”
Like Goya, who didn’t turn away from the messiness and poverty of his time, Sevigny pointed his lens into the corners of society which the rich and the middle class usually shunned.
“Wherever he lived, he sought out the dark places, the downtrodden places,” Ennemoser said. “He was drawn to that for some reason. When he lived in El Salvador, he got to know the leaders of the gangs there and was able to go into the prisons and take pictures. … His most recent book, ‘League of the Dead,’ was about addiction and addicts in one bar in Mexico City.”
Dunn chimed in: “I think that spirit is what drove his art: the (expletive) spirit of humanity. Not as we want it to appear, suburbs and springtime parades and Sunday church, but hard human existence. Drunks, addicts, prostitutes, gangsters, prisoners, immigrants, homeless.”
Sevigny taught himself how to speak Spanish.
When he worked for the Tallahassee Democrat during the turn of the 21st century, he hung out with the Spanish-speaking employees at San Miguel restaurant on Tharpe Street.
“He taught himself Spanish from books and workbooks,” said Dunn, who is now a media professor at East Tennessee State University. “The kind of (homework) you and I were supposed to do when we were in high school. Then he fearlessly went out and did it. When I say he was driven, I cannot stress to you how much.”
During his time in Tallahassee, Sevigny covered such topics as homelessness, local politics, and the Gore-Bush election recount.
One Saturday night, after Sevigny had written a newspaper series about migrant tomato workers in Gadsden County from Mexico and Central America, he took Dunn and me to a private bar in South Quincy.
We watched as a roving van filled with exotic dancers pulled up and the leggy entertainers entered the bar. They twerked for the workers. I have never heard such lewd rap music, which had replaced the fast-paced Tejano music. Also, I had never seen such a glorious clash of cultures. Sevigny was thrilled. Here was the underbelly of life in all its vulgar glory. That was his element.
Passing along knowledge
Sevigny, who happened to be first cousins with movie actress Chloe Sevigny (“Boys Don’t Cry”), was keen about teaching photography to the next generation.
“I met John on Twitter before Elongate Muskrat bought it,” Graceville photographer Sean Crutchfield, 37, said. “He gave me a lot of hard-earned perspective. What not to say to certain people and when to compromise – (which was) never.”
Crutchfield specializes in taking photos of haggard storefronts, forgotten buildings and small-town life in his rural portion of North Florida and the tristate area.
“He was going to introduce me to some collectors,” Crutchfield said. “We had discussed doing a workshop together in Quincy.”
“I met John several years ago when he was an artist-in-residence at Benedictine University (in a Chicago suburb),” admirer Cat Gaddis wrote on Facebook. “His work affects you in a way you can never imagine. He passionately captured what we may consider the seedy side of life … He exposed the beauty of individuals who were seen as ‘less fortunate’ than most.”
As an artist, Sevigny had nearly 50 solo exhibitions, including at Florida State University.
"I think he lived a life most of us know we could never,” Dunn added. “To give yourself completely to the art. To live completely without compromise. Intoxicating and scary as (expletive)."
To learn more about Sevigny’s art, visit johnsevigny.org.
Mark Hinson is a former senior writer at The Tallahassee Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Views of a different world: Photographer John Sevigny didn't flinch