By Christopher Harrity
Originally published on Advocate.com September 24 2011 4:00 AM ET
Coupled is a series of 20 large-format Polaroid photographs of queer couples, taken between 2006 and 2008. Every person has some connection to a female identity, whether past or present. The images are direct and posed, with the same lighting and bold red background in each image in an attempt to direct the focus entirely onto the subject. The couples are simultaneously unique and similar, becoming almost specimens of a cultural group through repetition of composition. While the images portray a specific group of couples at a historic time, they also raise universal questions about attraction, love, and the nature of relationships.
The Advocate: Why are you a photographer?
Jess Dugan: I am a photographer first and foremost because I love making photographs. It excites me and calms me like nothing else. I find that I can make the most powerful statements about the world around me through photography. I am fascinated with people's stories and I love being able to get to know people intimately through my work. My work is focused on other people, but in many ways, every image I take is an exploration of myself as well.
What catches your eye?
All kinds of things catch my eye. I am inspired by the world around me — by the sounds on the subway and the visuals of living in a city — but I am most inspired by people. I am a big people-watcher. I am fascinated with all of the different ways that we each choose to live our lives and present ourselves to the world. I spend a lot of time looking at the people around me, and I am constantly making photographs in my mind, reshaping my world into familiar 4-by-5-inch rectangles. I often see someone making a particularly beautiful gesture or with light falling on them in the perfect way and think, That would be a beautiful photograph. Many of these moments happen when I'm out in public, without my camera, but I remember the gesture or feeling that inspired me and try to incorporate that memory into future photographs. Everything I see influences me in one way or another, though I'm not always consciously aware of it.
Tell us about your process or techniques.
For the past eight years, I have photographed with a 4-by-5-inch wooden view camera. It is the kind of camera where you have to put your head under a dark cloth to see the image you are composing. I photograph in both black-and-white and color, though at the moment I'm primarily using color film. My process is very deliberate and time-consuming, but the negatives that result are absolutely beautiful, rich with detail. I love the process of working with a larger camera because it causes me to be very slow and precise about the image that I am making and it also requires a large amount of participation from my subject, which makes the process more of a collaboration and results in more emotional and engaged images.
Tell us about the Coupled series, how the idea came to you and how you selected your subjects.
I began photographing for Coupled in 2006, at which time gay marriage was a major political issue in Massachusetts and around the nation. I had the opportunity to use a 20-by-24-inch Polaroid camera, which is very rare because there are only five of these cameras in existence in the world. With my other projects, I always take my camera to my subject, but in this case, because the camera is so big, I had to bring my subjects to the camera. This limitation caused me to embrace the studio fully, posing each couple against the same bold red backdrop and creating images that focused exclusively on the people in them. Because the composition, lighting, and background are the same in all 20 images, it really forces you to look closely at the people as individuals.
I wanted to photograph queer couples as an affirmation of their relationships and of queer identity. It is important to make honest and positive photographs of queer people because it allows viewers to connect with our community in a way they might not otherwise do. I am asking viewers to look at real, beautiful queer couples as individual people, not as a demographic or political issue. I believe strongly in the power of art to influence social change, and I also believe that education can be the most effective on a personal level.
I found my subjects in many ways. Some of the couples are people I know very well, while I met others specifically through this project. All of the images were made in Boston and all of the couples were living in Massachusetts at the time.
Was there anything unusual about shooting this series for you? Did you learn anything unexpected?
The process of making this series was new and exciting for me because I had the opportunity to make work I was passionate about using an amazing camera and process. My subjects had to sit still for a long time while I was focusing and setting up the shot. Once we were ready to make the exposure, they had to remain still while I turned off the lights in the room, pulled a new sheet of film down behind the Polaroid camera, and cocked the shutter on the lens. Then I could press the shutter, which released six strobe lights to allow enough light to expose the film through the huge bellows of the camera. The couples had to remain perfectly still in complete darkness for close to 45 seconds while all of this happened, and then they experienced a very bright blast of light! It was imperative that they stayed in place, because moving even an inch forward or backward would have caused their eyes to be out of focus. After the exposure was made, we all waited anxiously while the image developed and then pulled apart a huge, 20-by-24=inch Polaroid photograph! The moment before we pulled the photograph apart, everyone held their breath with anticipation. It was amazing! It was an amazing experience for both me and my subjects, and I loved having the opportunity to work so intimately with my subjects while using such a fantastic camera.
I exhibited the photographs as a complete group of 20, visible simultaneously within one large room of Gallery Kayafas in Boston. What I found most interesting were the reactions I got from the viewers. Many people told me that while viewing the first few photos, they were trying to figure out the gender, sexuality, and identity of each person, but that after the first two or three images, they quit trying to put everyone into a category and just started noticing each person for who they were. I found this especially exciting, as much of my work is about breaking out of traditional categories or expectations and embracing the humanity in everyone. I was thrilled that the effect of this work was that viewers paid attention to each person and saw them as an individual, not an identity. Here is an excerpt from a review by Cate McQuaid in TheBoston Globe (I especially like her last sentence):
Every one of Dugan's subjects is a woman, was a woman, or wants to be a woman. Some are transgender. Others are not. Some fall into the category we identify as feminine; others do not.
The portraits can be confrontational: They have red backgrounds, and the subjects stare directly out at us. I found myself puzzling uncomfortably over those whose sex wasn't immediately evident; I'm still used to discrete categories when it comes to gender.
My habit of breaking folks into two genders certainly colored my reaction to Dugan's photos — it's her intention to poke holes in that kind of habit, and she does it well.
You seem to work in series. How do you decide what a theme is going to be?
I tend to work in series or projects, but I don't always set out knowing what the series will be in the beginning. Sometimes I have a very deliberate idea from the beginning, as was the case with Coupled, and other times a series will emerge more naturally out of simply continuing to make pictures. The theme of identity runs throughout all of my work, regardless of the series I'm working on. I work best within the parameters of a project because it allows me to really dig deep and focus on a particular group of people.
What is in the works that we might see as a future series?
I am currently working on a new chapter of my project Transcendence, which is a collection of portraits within the transgender and gender-variant community. These new portraits include a statement from the subjects about who they are and how they identify, allowing a deeper glimpse into their lives. I am also continuing to explore new ideas, specifically about the issues of gender, sexuality, and identity.
What photographers inspire you?
I have too many inspirations to list! Some of the major ones include Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Diane Arbus, David Hilliard, Dawoud Bey, Sally Mann, Dorothea Lange, Richard Renaldi, and August Sander. I am always looking at work by other photographers, both past and present. I am lucky enough to have worked in several art museums, which has allowed me to get up close and personal with works by many of photography's masters as well as to come into contact with things I may never have seen otherwise, such as historical medical daguerreotypes or archives of anonymous 19th-century photography. I often find inspiration in places I would not expect, so I keep my mind and eyes open to everything I see.
Jess T. Dugan is a large-format portrait photographer whose work explores issues of gender, identity, and shared humanity.
Born in Mississippi and raised in Arkansas, she then spent 12 years in Boston, where she studied photography at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and Museum Studies at Harvard University. She currently lives in Chicago and is pursuing her MFA in photography at Columbia College Chicago.
Jess’s photographs are regularly exhibited nationwide and are in the permanent collection of the Harvard Art Museums and the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts. Her work was recently exhibited at Gallery Kayafas in Boston and at the Michael Mazzeo Gallery in New York City.