I first became aware of Arthur Severio’s talents when he decided to convert his French Quarter hair salon into a fully-functioning art gallery to exhibit local artists and develop his own skills as a photographer. Over the years, his persistence has paid off and won him many accolades including selection for the Louisiana Contemporary exhibition in 2016 and more recently “Photographer of the Year” at this year’s Gay Appreciation Awards. While many of us are familiar with Arthur’s public persona, I wanted to know more about what motivates his fierce dedication to his own photography as well as the art community at large.
How did you first get into photography?
I first fell in love with photography when I started listening to record albums. They’d have these little pull-out packages which would be like a little story to go with it. My favorite record was an album called The Prodigal by Reba Rambo, which is how I chose my drag name.
When did you get your first camera?
After Katrina happened, I used my FEMA money to buy a Canon point and shoot.
That’s awesome. How did Katrina affect your career as an artist?
I think I was going through a midlife crisis before Katrina and I think it helped me define myself. I was no longer wanting to be that super-star hairdresser on Royal Street anymore because it was exhausting. It was just me and Lexxi– basically Mick Jagger and Tina Turner 24-7. There was no escape from that character. When Katrina happened, I moved to New York but I never did transcend into being a “New Yorker.”
Yea, I missed being a Southerner. I missed the connection. People do not want their photo taken in New York unless you are going to pay them and you better be ready to fight.
What kinds of photography did you pursue when you eventually came back south?
I wanted to do male nude photography and I was scared to death to say I wanted to take pictures of penises. Is it porno or is it art? What defines the difference? So I started to meet people on dating websites and I just started to ask people if I could shoot them. It was like asking someone on a date and most people thought I wanted to hook up with them. Probably for some of them there was an attraction. I mean everybody is attracted to their models.
That’s a tale as old as time: artist falls in love with their model.
I heard a woman say that she fell in love with every single one of her models and I think it’s true. There’s a connection happening. They trust you, you trust them. There’s that intimacy, especially if it’s nude modeling. There’s no mask.
Do models sometimes resist being that vulnerable in front of the camera?
I always tell the model to be whatever kind of naked they feel comfortable being. Then that gives the model the space to decide if they want to do this and not have me or whoever the photographer is trying to egg ‘em on and it feels icky.
At some point, you turned your hair salon into Severio Gallery. Why did you feel the need to start a gallery?
Even though I’ve been burned 9 million times, it’s important to have community. It’s important to help people and see the value in their vision.
Why did you have to close the doors on Severio Gallery?
They say there’s a maximum of three things you dedicate yourself to simultaneously. My own art is important. Hair I have to do to survive. I love drag and I also have to do that to survive.
Is there any relationship between you as a photographer and you as a drag queen?
By being part of that community it opens me up to getting intimate portraits of other drag queens. Just like with male nudes, it took me a while to gain enough credibility for people to trust me. Not everyone can do it.
You have used the term “Southern Gothic Redux” to characterize your work. What exactly does that entail?
Southern Gothic exposes people’s desires, their delusions of who they are. Nobody wants to admit their dark sides. Everybody wants that pretty picture on Facebook but nobody wants to admit they might drink too much, smoke too much, or have sex too much. You gotta expose the darkness to bring light.
How does Redux figure in?
It’s a repetition of the past, just like Chris Owens. She is the past, the present, and maybe the future.
Where do you see the future going for yourself?
I believe in bucket lists and as it turns out Reba Rambo has agreed to let me photograph her. The person that got me into photography in the first place is now going to be one of my subjects. Things have really come full circle.
More about Arthur Serverio
For more information on Arthur Severio and his work, visit Arthur’s website highlighting his work.