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John Arsenault’s love for photography started in high school after betting with his best friend that he could take a better photograph than her. Guess what? He won and his love for taking pictures has kept growing ever since. His book For You! Modern Day Love Letters was recently released by Daylight Books and it brings together photographs of roses that he’s been taking for the past five years. Arsenault captured the natural stage and decay of the flowers rather than an image of ‘perfection’ and full blossom, which makes this book very honest and vulnerable. If these photos were once posted on Instagram and dedicated to his husband, Raf, nowadays Arsenault sees them as love letters for everyone.
When did your interest in photography start? Do you remember the first picture you took?
My interest in photography started during my sophomore year of high school. My best friend Cindy and I took a photography class and she bet me she could take a better photograph than me. I won and fell in love with photography. I believe the first picture I took was a raindrop on a cherry blossom.
And what did come after? How was the journey till you became a well-known photographer with work exhibited internationally and two books released? Were there any points you thought about giving up?
I always knew I wanted to be a photographer, but I didn’t know what that exactly meant. I had references of National Geographic photographers and saw editorial pictures, but I didn’t know how someone became a professional one. After a two-year apprenticeship at Vidal Sassoon, I decided I wanted to pursue my dream of becoming a photographer. At the age of twenty-two, I was accepted into The Art Institute of Boston photography department. I completed three and half years and then transferred to The School of Visual Arts in New York City and graduated with a BFA in 1999. Taking photos and creating images has been a passion of mine for many years and I’ve never thought of giving up on it. I have done other things along the way while creating my art, which helped me expand my creativity in ways I could have never imagined.

Your book For You! Modern Love Letters was just released. I’m enchanted by it and would love to know more about its story. Could you tell us about the concept behind all those roses?
For You! started in 2012 while I was working on my series Barmaid at the Eagle LA. During the night I was photographing at the bar and during the day I would drive around Los Angeles taking pictures of roses in people’s front yards and gardens. I started dating my now husband Raf during that time and would post images of the flowers on Instagram with the caption “For You!” because I didn’t want people to know who I was dating. About six months later I began tagging Raf, and soon after started tagging other people I was thinking of while taking the photographs. The project became for everyone – for you! 
Do you remember the first time you were gifted a rose? And the first time you gave one?
I don’t remember the first time I was gifted a rose, but I’m sure it made me extremely happy. What I do remember is being a young boy, maybe five years old, and taking roses off of graves in the cemetery by our house and bringing them to my mother. She would explain how I shouldn’t do that, but I continued to bring her flowers for years to come. 
Roses are a universal symbol of love, represented by so many artists before. More traditionally, by the likes of Pierre-Joseph Redouté and Georgia O’Keeffe; and more recently, by others like Nick Knight, whose work is edgier and assembles, like yours, a vulnerable poetry. What new perspective do think your work gives to this symbol?
My series For You! was directly influenced by another series of mine, Barmaid: the darkness, vulnerability and love that I was experiencing influenced the way I created the images and gifted me a style of capturing flowers that I now feel is mine. My focus was on the natural stages of the flowers’ lives, including the imperfections and the decay rather than capturing an image of ‘perfection’.  I love photographing the in-between moments and that’s what I wanted to capture in this series as well.

Why honest and vulnerable pieces work better commercially?
It’s my opinion that honesty and vulnerability are traits that work best for anything, not just commercially.
Before For You! Modern Love Letters, you’ve mainly worked on landscapes and portraits that celebrate your sexuality and the queer community. What message do you want to evoke with such photographs?
After two friends and myself were severely gay bashed in 2000, I vowed to never falter from my authentic self, who I am, or the work I create. I made a promise to myself that I would live my life openly for everyone to see, so that if an LGBTQ person saw my work and my life they could see that it’s possible to be open and live a full life; to hold on because life is worth it.
So what kind of pictures do you feel more comfortable taking?
Whether personal or commercial work I always want to create images that feel authentic. I love capturing portraits. I enjoy the process of getting to know my subjects and getting to a place where they can let their guard down and allow themselves to be vulnerable.

Do you use your phone to take photographs? Did phones with good resolution make photography accessible to everyone? What’s your opinion about this?
Yes, I use my phone as well as a Hasselblad and a 35mm Nikon. My phone is a device that captures images and the technology is awesome. So as an artist that captures and creates images, it doesn’t matter what the camera or device is, but rather my commitment to my art. I treat my phone as another tool to create an image the same way people can use charcoal, pencils or paint. At the end of the day, it’s not the equipment that makes the image but the eye behind it.
What about Instagram? It’s an amazing vehicle for artists to share their work and connect with the viewers and other artists. How do you use the platform?
Instagram is a great tool to showcase my work and reach out to people that otherwise wouldn't know my photography. I enjoy the process of curating a visual diary on my social media and create new content for it as well. I like how instant Instagram is – it’s the modern-day polaroid. On the other hand, I like how commercial this app can be.  My husband Raf and I opened a store in New York last year called Mott NYC and we love using Instagram as a way of communicating our vision and message to our clients. It is an extension of our business and the world we create.
What’s your biggest goal for the future? Any upcoming projects you can share with us?
I am currently editing a project titled The Visitor, which I began in 2013, and I’m planning on starting a new portrait series in March this year. Also, 2019 will mark my twenty-fifth anniversary photographing self-portraits and a survey exhibition is scheduled at ClampArt Gallery – they’ve been representing my work for the past twelve years and I am very excited for this show.

Catarina Marques

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