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Nicole Carroll Art Consulting

Photographer Catherine Sebastian’s Beautiful World by Kay Cordtz

Anyone who has lived in the Hudson Valley and has eyes to see can appreciate the beautiful interplay of light and shadow in the environment here, and how it reveals the truth of what it touches. But an artist will often want to go nature one better and “turn the reality of a photograph into one’s own emotional truth.” Catherine Sebastian, a local resident for decades, and a photographer since she was a teenager, has lately come to that place with her work, and, through the medium of social networking, has recently attracted a burgeoning worldwide fan base. Sebastian will present her very first solo photography show this fall at Oriole 9 in Woodstock (September 10 through October 10).

Sebastian’s journey with photography began in her hometown of Los Angeles in the late 1960s. The beautiful blonde California girl had a look that was in demand for commercials to sell everything from makeup to soft drinks, although she was not particularly comfortable as a mannequin in front of the camera. Asked to do a small part in a student film at the American Film Institute, she borrowed a camera to document her week on the set. The director liked her photos so much that they ran under the crawl at the beginning of the film. “It was a very abrupt thing,” she said. “I looked at the pictures, liked the composition and thought ‘this is for me.’”

There may also have been some genetic aspect to her choice of a career. Sebastian’s mother, the late Joan Barnett, was a painter who, during the last decade of her life, served as the costume designer for more than 30 productions at Performing Arts of Woodstock. “My mother went to the Philadelphia Museum School of Art on a scholarship, she was that good,” Sebastian said proudly. “The excitement of interpreting the visual world, I just breathed that along with the smell of my mother’s oil paints when I was little.”

In due time, the novice photographer met her future husband, music icon John Sebastian, and went out with him on the road. But when they settled down again in Los Angeles, she got serious about learning the craft and took some classes. “I was taught what a photograph is made of, which is light and the choices that you make about how you’re going to lay that light on the film,” she said. “My teacher, Kirk Kirkpatrick, was famous for giving the hardest darkroom courses and would make us take the battery out of the camera, think about what film we had, look at the light and figure out what the film speed and the F-stop and the shutter speed should be. After shooting the pictures, we’d develop them and see how right we were. It was a great education. The set where I took my first pictures had been lit for motion pictures, and it was a couple of years before I took a picture that was that well lit again. Like every other person who picks up a camera, I had to learn about light and shadow.”

Photography can be an expensive hobby, so to make money for lenses and darkroom chemicals (and having decided against shooting weddings), she bought a Nikon F-body, and started taking pictures of her world—the city of Los Angeles and some of the musicians she encountered there—for magazines and record companies. She became a charter member of the Soho Gallery West group of photographers, and contributed several of her series of black and white double exposures depicting LA to a collective show. She also had the first of her two children, and began a lifelong process of balancing career and family. In the late 1970s, the Sebastians moved to Woodstock.

“There was almost more work for me as a young mother in Woodstock, because the concentration of musicians was so dense here that, once you do a good picture, you get referred on to others,” she said. Projects during this period included album covers for Levon Helm and the RCO Allstars, the local celebrity collaboration (including John, of course) Music from Mud Acres (1977), and Eye to Eye, a collaboration of blues greats including Pinetop Perkins, Calvin “Fuzz” Jones and Willie “Big Eyes” Smith. She finally got the opportunity to take her career to the next level when her husband’s song “Welcome Back”—written for the television series Welcome Back Kotter— became a smash hit in 1976. After a prolonged period of touring, he was eager to stay home and househusband for awhile. An encounter on an airplane with Leo Sayer’s producer got her an invitation to return to Los Angeles to shoot Sayer’s next album cover for Columbia Records.

“The whole New Wave scene was just starting to break,” she said. “They had me in the studio to shoot photos for the album and tour booklet, and one thing led to another. I started going out to clubs and taking pictures. A few publications like Bay Area Magazine, LA Connection, LA Times and Trouser Press started liking my work, and I became a successful freelance. I would go to the clubs, shoot, take the work back to the darkroom, send it to the magazine, get some sleep, and go out again.”

During that time, Sebastian did album covers for the Textones and the Plimsouls, as well as for solo projects by Peter Case, Jack Lee and Kathy Valentine. With a family waiting at home, she soon returned to Woodstock, but never put down the camera or forgot what she had learned. “At live shows, you control as many factors as you can and then you sit there and wait,” she said. “When I see a person start to smile, I know that I need to press the shutter now because their smile is going to break in that fraction of a second. If I wait until I see the smile, I’ve lost it.”

“I’m also big on eye contact, but not every image that I like is somebody looking into my camera,” she explained. “I definitely like the feeling that they’re either aware of me or they’re so lost in what they’re doing that I have chosen a good moment to let you join them.”

A watershed moment in Sebastian’s career came some five years ago when she bought a digital camera. “A lot of my work was shooting groups live, and to shoot under those conditions on film is very problematic,” she said. “I shot the Chasing Gus’ Ghost (concert and documentary based on American jug band history, focusing on musician Gus Cannon, 2009) show in San Francisco with my new digital camera and it was instantly usable for the CD and for the website. So I just mentally sidestepped the film vs. digital battle that was raging. The digital camera is great live and that is a big part of what I do.”

The quality of the work did not go unnoticed by peers like renowned blues photographer Dick Waterman. “In these days of cheaper digital cameras, everyone thinks they’re a photographer. Someone goes to a club and then uploads 200 images to add to the internet garbage pile. But that’s not being a ‘photographer.’ That’s just someone who takes pictures. Catherine will see the ripples of a stream, the way a bird sits on a limb, the filigree of a butterfly’s wings . . . and she knows that the image is fleeting but worth preserving. We have reached a stage where anyone can have access to good equipment so it’s not the camera or the lens that really matters. Catherine makes the connection between the eye and the heart. She knows the precious moment and she brings it forth for us to savor.”

More recently, for Sebastian, “...a window opened and I started using the digital camera for itself—you see a picture you want to take, and you can construct how you’re going to go after it using what a digital camera can do, and what you know you can do in the digital darkroom. When I took a picture, I could decide what the truth about this picture would be if I could make it pop more, or make it be more of an abstract representation of what I was shooting. With each image, you just do to it what it wants done to it. So I started screeching around with digital darkroom software, and I got some results I really loved.”

Nature scenes from her yard and her travels were transformed by the emphasis she chose to apply to their elements. The switch to digital photography also coincided with Sebastian’s discovery of modern social media. “When I first joined Facebook, I started playing this game called Mystery Artist of the Day,” Sebastian said. “I would troll through my 30 years of photographs, scan an image, post it on my page and let people guess who it was. It turned into a wonderful vehicle for people to reminisce about artists.” (This also led to a Roll cover—the shot of Pete Seeger at a John Hall benefit concert—as well as an untouched, elegiac Roll Portrait of washtub player Fritz Richmond.)

“Many years earlier, Fritz and John were in a jug band together and they were rehearsing for a show at the Bearsville Theater,” Sebastian remembered. “Fritz was sitting by the stage door with the light from the exit sign shining down on him. I was lying on my stomach on the stage shooting the washtub bass with the stick leaning on it, the glove he played with and his jug, and Fritz in this cone of light. Sadly, Fritz got very sick and died of cancer a few years later. I always called the picture ‘Heavenly Fritz.’”

Through Facebook, she started befriending photographers from around the world—both great photographers and gifted amateurs. “It became sort of a portfolio peer review,” she said. “I posted some of my new images and the reaction was very pointed and very united. People said ‘I love this stuff, I get what you’re doing, where can I buy this, you should do a book.’ And it had a tremendous calming and focusing effect on me. All of a sudden, it dawned on me that you could take an image and complete the thought of whatever it was you saw, or were trying to say, or the feeling you were trying to make someone have. People started asking ‘is that a photograph or a painting or what?’”

Not long ago, Lenny Kislin, who curates the photography exhibits at (Woodstock restaurant) Oriole 9, saw some of her work on Facebook, and contacted her about a solo show. He visited her office in Kingston, looked at her work and picked out 30 images, from which he culled the twelve that will be presented in the show. “It took me a while to see that Lenny, as curator, had actually developed a theme—the ‘fire’ in nature. And somehow it makes sense that it includes ‘water,’” Sebastian said.

Kislin added that, “When one peers at examples of her art, it's as if you are looking at earthly scenes through alien eyes. Her colors and images are otherworldly, while maintaining a certain naturalness. As a curator, I try to be open to all genres when judging artists' works, and computer enhanced photography is a contemporary art form with which I have become familiar in recent years.” He continued, “Taking a giant leap from her universally praised ‘normal’ photography, Catherine has taken on this relatively new medium, and has produced a body of work which is truly compelling. With the vast amount of generic examples of this material appearing lately in the public realm, Catherine has beautifully and excitingly distinguished herself from others who create it.”

Sebastian does admit to having one neurosis about digital photography: “A negative is an actual physical object. I can count on it always being there. I save every digital image I take to three different hard drives because I can’t get used to the fact that these images are actually nothing,” she said. “They’re stored somewhere, but it’s in a computer. It does give me pause sometimes.” She is thankful that her office space allows her to keep every physical picture she has taken over the years.

“There is a picture in my exhibit that I took maybe 15 years ago in the Southwest on color negative film,” she said. “It’s the side of a church and a big dusty field, and some trees. And when I had the film developed, the sprocket holes had slipped out so the sprockets are visible on the bottom of the image. I loved the shape of the sprockets—they looked like tombstones to me—so I sampled them, and turned this big field into a graveyard with these kind of see-through tombstones, like a double exposure. If I had thrown that negative away, I never would have gotten to this image.”

Although Sebastian’s show has not yet opened, she has already sold one of the works. A woman saw her image called “Cactus, Joshua Tree 2008” on Facebook, and wanted to buy it for her house in Santa Fe. “It’s very comforting to know that someone who saw the work in its digital form and admired it enough to buy it was pleased with the final product,” she said. “For an artist, there’s nothing more enjoyable than knowing that you’re going to have an audience and that they ‘get it.’”



The photographs of Catherine Sebastian will be on display September 10 through October 10,at Oriole 9 restaurant, 17 Tinker St., Woodstock, www.oriole9.com, 845.679.5763. Open daily 8:30 AM-5 PM.



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