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Beauty in the Rough

January 28, 2009

Wendy II, Guadalajara, from Ladies Bar by John Sevigny

Wendy II, Guadalajara, from Ladies Bar by John Sevigny

The Lives of Cantina Women

John Sevigny’s photography series “Ladies’ Bar” has recently been posted on It is a beautiful, difficult, mesmerizing, upsetting portfolio about women living in jeopardy. The photographs picture the prostitutes and paid drinking companions that frequent the down-and-out bars of Guadalajara, Mexico. Sevigny’s exhibit extract states his intention “to create a metaphor for the treatment of women in Mexico and beyond.” The fact that he does this with an effortless clarity of vision intensifies the magnitude of his achievement. There is a compassionate honesty inherent in his many seated portraits of the women simply being with the artist and his camera. Their expressions present a universe of emotions in which the vicissitudes of poverty has made its imprint.

Their gestures of lack and need are re-visualized in Sevigny’s studies of the ladies’ physicality. He pictures their tattoos, clothing and jewelry, or scarcity thereof, with an almost dispassionate interest. These close-ups make the viewer squirm with discomfort or recognition. The artist makes the audience confront his or her own conceptions about what is or what should be. He challenges us with his clarity, yet he compels us with his empathy to expand our own understanding.

Many of the photographs illustrate these ladies in relation to suggestive posters of young women displayed on the walls around the cantinas. Some of the pictures only need to focus on the bar environment to achieve their striking impact. These cantinas offer a microcosm of the fragility of life in a woman’s world. It is an indication of Sevigny’s success when we realize the beauty of his subjects within this paucity of circumstances. The directness of his approach helps us perceive the facts of the pictures. The intensity of his dedication amplifies our concern for the welfare of his subjects. “Ladies’ Bar” works on many levels. Most importantly, they are strong pictures of strong women trying to survive exhausting circumstances.

Frank Ward, 12/08

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