Most New Orleans art buffs have probably heard of Josephine Sacabo; she has been exhibiting here, somewhat sporadically, for years. But she has never gotten much press, and generally flies below (or maybe above) the radar of the local art world, so there is probably no way for most people to know she is this city's most successful living photographic artist. But she is.
In the past few years her dark, ghostly, broodingly romantic prints have been exhibited in galleries and museums all over the world; she had six solo shows last year alone. Her images grace the pages of a new edition of Pedro Paramo, the classic Mexican magic realist novel by Juan Rulfo, and a portfolio of her work appeared in 21st, a deluxe photography anthology that sells for hundreds of dollars a copy. The publishers of 21st also issued a limited-edition book, Cante Jondo, pairing her photos with Mexican poet Ana Balmaceda's poems. A deluxe limited edition, with actual photographs bound in as pages, was priced at $2,500 and promptly sold out. Encouraged by the success of that edition, the publishers promptly offered Sacabo another book deal, this time pairing her images with a new translation of Rainer Marie Rilke's Duino Elegies, to be offered at a similar price when it appears next year.
She seems a little overwhelmed as she recounts all this in the antique comforts of her French Quarter home, which she and her husband, Gambit Weekly theater critic Dalt Wonk, somehow found time to renovate over the past few years. After plugging away for ages, everything seems to be coming up roses for Sacabo as the millennium unfolds. For those who know her, this comes as no great surprise; her energy, enthusiasm and talent have been obvious all along. But to hear her tell it, it was mostly luck.
"At every step along the way, there was always a moment of serendipity when the right thing happened, the right connection was made, often totally by accident," she says. Referring to a Houston photo festival, she says, "I hate that kind of scene where everyone is trying to show their portfolio, so I didn't even bring mine. Then, at one event, I stepped outside to smoke a cigarette -- I've since quit -- which led to a conversation with another smoker, a cowboy who turned out to be a famous screenwriter and big-time photography collector. That was when I was working on my Pedro Paramo series, and he turned out to be a huge fan of the novel. Through that chance encounter, my work ended up illustrating a new edition of Paramo."
She makes it sound easy, but anyone who has ever watched her work knows her as a dervish, a blur of perpetual motion. Born in 1944, in Laredo, Texas, where her father once served as mayor, Sacabo has lived here since 1973. Even that came about seemingly through a flight of whimsy. "We were living in France when we saw a book, All This Is Louisiana by Frances Parkinson Keyes, which had these amazing photos of the French Quarter," she recalls. "We were thinking of moving back to the States, and this looked like paradise to us, so we decided to give it a try. We never noticed that the book and those great photos dated from the 1940s!
"What we found was very different," she continues, "but it all worked out -- we rented a nice, but inexpensive apartment, and we found work almost from the start."
After starting out as a photojournalist, Sacabo found a more lucrative niche as a portrait photographer. Raising a child was demanding, but as her daughter grew up Sacabo was able to focus more on her creative side, beginning in 1987 with a series inspired by Rilke's Duino Elegies -- the same images recently chosen for that limited edition by the publishers of 21st. Her next series, exhibited in Europe, caught the eye of a Parisian publisher, which led to her first book, 1991's Un Femme Habitee. Eventually, her preoccupation with Europe yielded to a renewed interest in her Hispanic roots as she became fascinated by the resurrection of Guerrero Viejo, a Mexican ghost town 12 miles from Laredo. Submerged for ages under the waters of a dam, it had miraculously reappeared during a drought. But it was only after she began working there that she discovered Pedro Paramo, the surreal novel about a Mexican ghost town, and saw that the images she was creating were eerily similar to the novel. Only later did she find out her grandmother had been born there.
As a young woman she had been all too happy to leave Laredo, but suddenly her Mexican roots became a source of inspiration. "I hadn't really been back, except to visit my mother's house, in the previous 25 years," she said, making an "X" with her fingers. "And of course anything you feel that way about has got to have a rich other side. So I went back and rediscovered it in my work."
- Josephine Sacabo
- Josephine Sacabo's photography has graced the pages of Juan Rulfo's novel Pedro Paramo, poet Ana Balmaceda's Cante Jondo, and the deluxe photography anthology 21st.