by Kirsten Rian

Published on 08/28/ 2013

In Every Breath We Drew photographer Jess Dugan presents a collection of intimate and revealing self-portraits along with portraits of others. In them, Dugan explores the power of identity, desire, connection, and her own sexuality. Dugan explains, “By asking others to be vulnerable and intimate with me through the act of being photographed, I am laying claim to my own desires and defining what I find beautiful.” We found her photographs to be both gentle and revealing — enjoy!
Self-portrait (hotel), 2012

“The truth is such a slippery idea,” Jess Dugan tells me in a recent interview. “Photography traditionally has been so heavily associated with the idea of objectivity and documentation, but I think we all have acknowledged by now that there really is no such thing as truth in photography from a traditional, objective point of view.

In my current work, I am intentionally trying…to blur lines of gender and sexuality

“However, I do strongly believe that photography engages with truths, both universal and personal, in a very real way,” she continues. “In my current work, I am intentionally trying to work in the grey area, to blur lines of gender and sexuality and also of truth and fiction.”

Collaborating with subject and self, with intellect and emotion, with exterior and interior aspects of one’s body, and with photography’s strengths as well as its deficits requires a certain flexibility and creative humility that Dugan embodies. Her images are neither pretentious nor weak. They are direct, honest, and utterly present — qualities most of us strive to carry, the kind of presence in the world that implies an understanding that with every single breath we get closer to some kind of end, expanding the value of each inhalation, of each glance, moment, and individual.
Andy and Lee, 2013

Dugan’s images resonate like a flag plunged into the soil of each day

The process of inhabiting oneself as fully as possible and owning all aspects of DNA and familial history that contribute to our physicalness as well as our psyches, and at the same time exiling the cultural and social narratives we reject, is a lifetime project embarked on every waking minute of our lives. Dugan’s images resonate like a flag plunged into the soil of each day. “I’m here,” their subjects seem to say. “Do I like who I am and what I’m doing with my life? Now, what am I going to do about it?” The truths of roles — self, daughter, son, mother, father, friend, lover, and on and on — reconcile as identity, requiring honest self-engagement, as well as authentic engagement with those around us.

“By asking others to be vulnerable and intimate with me through the act of being photographed, I am laying claim to my own desires and defining what I find beautiful and powerful while asking larger questions about how identity is formed, desire is expressed, and intimate connection is sought,” Dugan says.
Ashley, 2012

By asking others to be vulnerable and intimate…I am laying claim to my own desires

A meaningful portrait, such as the ones Dugan makes, reflects the space that blooms between the subject and the photographer, the caught moment of interaction where some fragment of self is fused with another. Something hidden is revealed, even if in just a glance. What was intangible becomes available in the content of the image, a confession of visibility.

Dugan is reflective in our conversation, discussing topics ranging from portraiture’s signature to the balance of movements between individuals in a photograph to the uniting factors of Dugan’s own compositional and personal desires.

“My work engages my own subjective truths as a person and artist, but I also often work within marginalized communities and have somewhat of an activist or political undercurrent in my photographs,” she says. “There is a documentary element to my work in which I intentionally portray people who are not often represented, or who are often misrepresented — people within queer and transgender communities — in order to increase visibility and encourage a relationship between the viewer, who might not be familiar with queer and trans folks, and myself or my subjects. Ultimately, I hope to encourage not only awareness but also active self-reflection through my photographs.”

While she has photographed portraits of strangers, Dugan prefers working with individuals with whom she has some connection, a tangible starting point that encourages deeper movement into the psychological and emotional aspects of self and community.

“This project in many ways was a natural evolution of my photographic practice,” Dugan says. “For the past eight years, my work has explored issues of gender, sexuality, and community. This work grew immediately out of my project Transcendence, in which I was making intimate portraits of people within the transgender and gender variant communities. However, along the way my interests shifted from being specifically about gender to being more about intimacy, connection, desire, and relationships. As always, my work is highly connected to my personal life. After making work that dealt so specifically with gender and with my own transgender identity, I was ready to begin making work about other aspects of my life as well.”

Dugan uses a 4 x 5 view camera to encourage a greater sense of intimacy through the sustained and deliberate process required by this format. Consistent with her thoughtful and detailed approach, this format choice is also significant in its historical reference to classic portrait photography. By using a more traditional format to examine a complex contemporary subject, she is creating yet another thread of content through the physical execution of the images. The fact that the medium and the content resonate so harmoniously is a testament to her skill in managing narrative by stacking composition, technique, and content. A chord.

“I am constantly trying to complicate the composition and framing of my work, on a technical level, while thinking about the emotional impact of elements such as gesture, lighting, framing, posing, and engagement with the camera — and ultimately connection with the viewer,” Dugan explains. “I am always trying to push myself out of my comfort zone and force myself to make new kinds of pictures — to surprise myself in the process and allow photographing to be an act of discovery. Of course this discovery has to be balanced with intention, but it is important to me to continue to challenge and surprise myself, despite my technical comfort with making portraits.”

A host of artists have influenced Dugan: August Sander, Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Robert Frank, Minor White, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Del LaGrace Volcano, Collier Schorr, Rineke Dijkstra, David Hilliard, Richard Renaldi, Dawoud Bey, Kelli Connell, Keliy Anderson-Staley, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Kathe Kollwitz. A laundry list of artists who, each in their own imagery, liberated gaze and allowed it to spill transformationally into personal aesthetic and interpretation. In addition to devoting time to studying and allowing herself to be inspired by these artists and their expressive and radiant photographs, Dugan’s aesthetic was also influenced by her job in the collections management department at the Harvard Art Museum, where she pulled work for visitors to view and photographed the collection. In her first year alone, she photographed 20,000 images.
Jaxon, 2013

“I saw amazing work that I absolutely would never have seen had it not been my job to photograph it — a collection of 1,000 engraved and printed Italian letters; the archive of medical daguerreotypes from Massachusetts General Hospital; archives of early glass negatives; original prints by many of my influences, including Diane Arbus, Sally Mann, Robert Frank, and Minor White; and many, many other works that ultimately helped shape my visual vocabulary,” she says. “My current work is influenced by classical paintings, especially in regard to my use of color and light, and much of this influence came from my time spent around paintings and prints at Harvard. It is one thing to go see a painting once or twice, or to see it in a book, and it is quite another to walk past it every single day on your way to your desk, or to show it to visitors 30 times, or to pack it carefully for transport, paying attention to its every detail. Although I didn’t realize it fully at the time, that experience played a significant role in my own work.”

With the theme of connection running through Dugan’s portraiture, it’s not surprising she allowed herself to be moved by the work she held in her hands, or peered at while setting up an archive photo. The arrangement of influence and inspiration requires a capacity to see, as well as a willingness to be affected and in essence change some part of ourselves. Vulnerability and bravery light the edges of subject or story, and it’s in that space the sky opens.

I am using my photographs as a way to understand who I am and what I am attracted to

In the seminal 1950 text The Story of Art, by E. H. Gombrich, the first line reads, “There really is no such thing as Art. There are only artists.” Dugan continues. “I am always evaluating my own thoughts, emotions, and instincts,” she says, “using my photographs as a way to understand who I am and what I am attracted to, as well as my own struggles and challenges. There are moments when I have to look directly at my own shortcomings, fears, and struggles, and this can of course be challenging. There are also moments when I feel like I have communicated exactly what I am feeling or trying to say, which is exceptionally rewarding.”

Taan pregnant, 2012

Dugan is currently in the planning stages of a project focusing on older generations within the transgender community, noting that there is a significant lack of complex, humanistic, multifaceted representations of this population. “I work very intuitively, so my process is a natural one of making pictures and then editing them more logically later, attempting to learn from my pictures and always make the next one better than the last.”

A crow was electrocuted and fell off the telephone wire in front of my house last week. I watched this huge bird limp about my garden bed, dragging along its badly broken wing. He stopped, sat there in the dirt, and looked up at me. Blinked. Watched me. Blinked. His black eyes, black feathers, sharp black beak borrowed light and glistened. My kids and I caught him in a towel, placed him in a box, and brought him to the animal hospital. He bumped and batted about the box the whole car ride, trying to get out despite experiencing what must have been tremendous physical pain. I peeked in the box one last time before leaving him. It was those eyes and the substance behind them, looking with fear, memory, crow-ness: self. I’ve been unable to shake that unbroken, unflinching moment that passed from his eyes to mine and back again. I think about this when I look at Dugan’s portraits. They stay with me.