Beowulf Sheehan is a photographer of portraiture and performance in the arts. His work has appeared internationally, including in Esquire, The New Yorker, Time, Vanity Fair, and Vogue and at the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Dostoevsky Museum, and International Center of Photography. His new book, published today by Black Dog & Leventhal / Hachette Book Group, is AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan. More about the book follows the interview.
Cagibi: Hilaire Belloc, the early twentieth century Anglo-French writer and historian, wrote, “We wander for distraction, but we travel for fulfillment.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
Beowulf Sheehan: I agree wholeheartedly. Our lives are filled with both. They are as much a search for and a discovery of our selves as they are escapes from our selves. As our world widens and demands of our time grow, wandering gives us stillness in the midst of that expansion. Travel permits us to mute those demands, to escape our daily constraints and simply “be,” energized by the landscape of the new, living apart from life. How fascinating that the word “wanderlust” exists and that its definition exists in all of us.
Cagibi: Name some of your favorite distractions when you travel somewhere.
Sheehan: Your request hits me with the epiphany that my distractions at home are my distractions abroad. Among my lifelong loves, for example, are swimming and surfing. I spent most early mornings this summer swimming. At the end of the summer, I took a one-day holiday to go swimming with whale sharks off the Yucatán Peninsula. Surfing has taken me to many countries. The mechanics might be the same as at home—walk to the shore, paddle into a lineup—but each destination and its waves are unique.
If there’s no pool or beach, there should be a bookstore. There should be art, culture, language. We leave home to come home again.
Cagibi: A cagibi, loosely interpreted, is a space such as a cubbyhole, or a space where you store things. For ourselves we’ve translated it as “any shelter, no matter how tiny, that allows for big imaginings to take shape.” Pick what kind of cagibi would be best suited for your creative process: a) a super organized cubbyhole b) a super messy tool shed c) any restricted space d) a space as vast as the universe. Please explain your choice—we are dying to understand your creative process.
Sheehan: I’m led to answer “c.” Having limited tools forces creativity to work with them. My pictures are largely collaborations with my subjects, and we have only our setting and each other. It’s up to us to do more than just make do with what we have.
Cagibi: In what ways does traveling influence your work, whether while still abroad, or once you are back home in your studio?
Sheehan: Traveling is a bit like Halloween. We get to take off our everyday wear and be our truer selves, at least be open to parts of our selves that daily life might neglect. My work requires that I’m open and attentive to my subject and our environment. Traveling means either or both are new to me, and with new experiences come new lessons, ideally new ways of seeing. If I’ve not learned even the slightest new lesson about humanity and drawn new inspiration, I’ve not traveled far enough. Home should look a little different after each return to it, with what I’ve learned abroad adding to how I work here. The school of life should always be in session.
Cagibi: Do you use your work as an excuse to travel? Do you use travel as an excuse to not work?
Sheehan: Both. I’ve been honored to have traveled across time zones for photography. And I’ve traveled quite far to take a break from photography—but at some point the innate desire to preserve that new view in photographs takes hold.
Cagibi: Tell us about a book you read that made you want to go and visit a place you’ve never been to. How about an image?
Sheehan: Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises had me romanticizing about France and Spain in high school. My mother had lived in both before I came along, so they had already been on my mind for years—but his novel took my curiosity to new heights. Though my views on bullfighting changed, I still dreamed of the two. And Philippe Halsman’s Dali Atomicus was (and still is) one of the most amazing photographs I’ve ever seen. I wanted to be exposed to the cultures of the two artists. In 2014 I finally made it to Spain and to Salvador Dalí’s native city of Figueres, where I visited his museum. It was overrun with more than enough inspiration to last a lifetime. Hemingway, Halsman, and others had already led me to Paris by then, and I’ve since gone again. Sitting at the window and reading while the piano played at Shakespeare and Company in Paris was among the moments that taught me how beautiful solitude could be.
Cagibi: With this book, you are stepping out from behind the camera—in effect, the camera is turned to you. Do you find this an uncomfortable or thrilling place to be?
Sheehan: I’m thrilled. Photography helped me engage people when I was young and shy, with me behind the camera. I’m more than comfortable there. Over the years I took occasional turns at challenging myself before the camera—I was even among the many who did nudes for Spencer Tunick years ago—and found the experiences increasingly liberating. Building empathy for the experiences of others, certainly for feelings of being before the camera, has been invaluable. How great to have the opportunity to engage people with Author, photography now not my Linus blanket but a wonderful art form to share. I can’t wait to soon share the photographs, stories, and lessons behind my professional life thus far. We spent our kindergarten days playing show-and-tell. We loved it then as children. Why wouldn’t we love it as adults?
Cagibi: This is Cagibi Express and we are here to deliver news to your fans—what can they expect next from you? What are your upcoming projects?
Sheehan: A book makes concrete a journey to a point, but that journey continues. I’ll keep celebrating writers and other storytellers with my photography while working to grow stronger in what I love to do. I plan to take more risks in my photography, getting deeper with color and light, engaging creatives in fields in addition to the literary community. There are countless stories in need of telling, and there is tremendous beauty in diversity. I’m excited to travel, camera in hand, to celebrate both.
About AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan
A beautiful and moving collection of photographs by today’s foremost literary portrait photographer, AUTHOR: The Portraits of Beowulf Sheehan captures the essence of 200 writers, historians, journalists, playwrights, and poets from 35 countries, from Roxane Gay to Masha Gessen, Patti Smith to Zadie Smith, Karl Ove Knausgaard to J.K. Rowling, and Jonathan Franzen to Toni Morrison. Following an enlightening foreword by Salman Rushdie, Beowulf Sheehan shares an essay offering insights into the poignant and memorable moments he experienced while making these portraits. A treasured gift for readers and lovers of portrait photography, AUTHOR is the only book of its kind to appear in more than a decade.
Partial proceeds from AUTHOR will benefit BookUp, a program of the National Book Foundation to inspire reading by students in underserved communities across the country. Reading isn’t just fundamental. It is a vital gateway to a successful life.