Proof of Life: Mamiya Interview

This is an interview with Ron Egatz for the Mamiya Blog in 2009. Mamiya is a Japanese company that manufactures high-end cameras and other related photographic and optical equipment, and I got the call from New York to be interviewed about my work.

Somewhere in London, Paris Seawell is shooting film with his Mamiya, and the world is fortunate for that. Although he paints, creates sculpture, and has made a few short movies (such as This Place) his black and white photography is where his most accomplished artistic vision shines.

Seawell’s series entitled Semblance is a unique vision of distorting the human body with seemingly random but highly controlled projections onto his model, Agata Rybicka. The results range from the horrifying to the sublime, but always remain fascinating and undeniable. Semblance harkens back to André Kertész’s groundbreaking series Distortions, but Seawell doesn’t bend the body’s form with light—he projects a series of images onto it. A fingerprint, marker jottings, splashes, and the initial letters of the four DNA nitrogenous bases (G, C, T and A) are source materials for these projections. His goals are not only to get us to view the body differently, but to think.

Seawell considers himself an artist first and a photographer second, and this makes perfect sense. “To me, large parts of photography are about creating a frame of reference. This is a way of showing people how you think, and in turn, being able to compare that to how other people think,” Seawell says of his vision. Although he does shoot in color, he is more interested in working with shape, tone, form and texture at this time. People and their skin textures in particular are his primary inspiration and subject matter.

Proof of Life is about viewing the body differently, also, although the subjects are not manipulated with props. Scarred bodies themselves are the subjects, yet he consciously works to remove emotion from these photos. This series, he states, has more meaning than Semblance. “There’s more context, thought and philosophy around Proof of Life.” Originally conceived as an antidote to Robert Mapplethorpe’s perfect human forms, Seawell explains, “I don’t want to find the flaw or scar on a perfect body. I wanted to find the perfection in the flaw, and how the flaw can be beautiful.” Pointing to Jeffrey Silverthorne’s morgue photographs, Seawell strives for both stillness and mystery in these images. He’s not striving for romantic images and provides no backstory on his subjects and their wounds. This growing collection currently features an accident victim, an emergency surgery patient, a skin disease sufferer, and a self-harm patient. Other subjects are on the way, including a man aged 55. “These bodies are objects. Bodies are just things. I’m not objectifying the models, but showing the beauty of what and who they are.”

His frankness continues through to the equipment he uses and the photographic process he’s developed. Originally working with a digital SLR, Seawell quickly had a change of heart. “I got bored. It was too easy. I wasn’t learning anything about photography. It was shallow. When I found the Mamiya, it saved photography for me. It breathed life back into the process. It sounds stupid, but it was magic. I was shooting and I thought ‘this is how photography should be.’ I felt like a rockstar—like Avedon shooting Monroe or Leibovitz shooting Lennon. It’s not just nostalgia. A good comparison would be stairs and escalators to film and digital. People will always want to walk at their own pace, as opposed to having the work done for them.” There’s a tactile satisfaction Seawell reports with his Mamiya 645 1000s. “There’s the whirring of the winder and the clunk of the shutter. It’s brilliant. The mechanicalness of it makes you feel you’re accomplishing something.” Currently shooting with an original Mamiya 80mm lens, Seawell eventually wants to acquire a 645 AFD III.

Although the projections and scars may change, Paris Seawell can be counted on for his continuing vision of the uncommon and unspoken. An artist unafraid to show what is typically hidden both inside and out, Seawell plans on bringing us more images of the same. Viewers, no doubt, will continue to attempt to put their own stories to them and roam where Seawell’s textures may lead their eyes.

Written by Ron Egatz