In collaboration with Slate's photo blog, Behold, we are extending the conversation with some of their featured photographers.
Jess Dugan has often used portraiture as a way of exploring gender and sexuality. Her latest series, “Every Breath We Drew,” to be published as a monograph this fall by Daylight, is a body of work in which Dugan not only questions the definition of masculinity but also the idea of identity. Is our self defined from within or is it part of a larger question about our connection – and desire to connect - to others? “I was trying to make something more universal than just showing a group of people who share a similar identity,” she said. “I wanted people to reflect on that process for themselves, and how we connect with people.”
When you first began imagining a career in photography, what did that look like? Was gallery representation or a book publication part of that vision?
I was lucky to get gallery representation at the very beginning of my career, so in many ways, I grew up as an artist within the gallery system. I was also lucky to be working with a gallery director who acted as a mentor to me (more about her in question 3) and who was very sensitive to my work, always privileging the integrity of the work over its marketability.
To be quite honest, I didn’t know what a career in photography would look like. My first year out of undergrad was a rough transition, as I had lofty ideas about grants and residencies and things like that. My undergrad faculty were all Guggenheim-winning artists, so that was the model I saw most directly. For many years, my career involved me working a 9 to 5 job and making just enough extra money to spend every weekend in the darkroom, which I built in my studio apartment. After several years of that, I moved from Boston to Chicago to go to grad school (lured largely by the prospect of working with Dawoud Bey, who became a very significant mentor to me). At that point, I was more aware of what I wanted out of my career, and it certainly involved galleries and books.
I have quite a photobook addiction, and I have always loved the book form as a way to experience photographs. My earliest, most powerful moments with photography came from seeing myself (or people like myself) reflected in photography books at a time when I didn’t see these representations anywhere else around me. I had many profound moments sitting in the basement of the Harvard Book Store flipping through used photography books and discovering influential photographers I would come to know and love.
I have made many artist books and self-published books over the past 6 or 7 years, but I’m currently working on my first monograph and am really excited about that. I’m already thinking in terms of books for my next two projects, which are well underway.
You're quite a prolific photographer. Talk about the importance of producing work both for yourself and for your career.
Thank you. You know, it’s interesting that you say that I am prolific, because in some ways I don’t know what that means. Since I discovered photography, I have been addicted, and I have somewhat obsessively been making work since then.
Making work is the way I feel connected to the world, and also the way I make sense of my own life, my own relationship, etc. So, I consistently and intentionally make pictures. What’s interesting is that I don’t really make a lot of snapshots anymore- I’m not the kind of photographer who always carries a camera. For me, making work and truly experiencing a moment are almost always mutually exclusive activities.
In terms of my career, it certainly helps that I make a lot of work, as galleries like showing new images. In some ways, though, it becomes its own kind of challenge to make sense of a photographic process that comes so naturally from my life. Though I present my work in very distinct “projects,” their creation often happens simultaneously, or one project flows into another, or themes emerge from photographs I’ve been making over a period of years.
What was your first big break? Describe what that meant to you and how/if your definition of "break" has changed as you continue your career.
My definition of a break has most definitely changed throughout my career. My first big break would have to be when I met Arlette Kayafas, owner of Gallery Kayafas in Boston. I had just graduated from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, an amazing school that I was quite lucky to attend, especially since I didn’t fully realize when I applied at the age of 16 how amazing their photography program was and how it would form the foundation of my career. I was working at the Bernard Toale Gallery in Boston’s South End with Joseph Carroll, who now runs Carroll and Sons, and through my experience in the gallery I got to know Arlette, whose gallery was just down the block. We formed a relationship, I showed her my work, and I had my first solo show one year later in the fall of 2008. My relationship with her has been career-changing; she mentored me in the business of galleries, supported my work both emotionally and financially from the very beginning, and provided a consistent, meaningful place for me to get feedback and gain perspective on my work.
That summer, I also took a part time job at the Harvard Art Museum which led to a full time job there, which led to me to spend the last eight years working in the museum field, which has also been hugely informative to my career as an artist.
Over the years, there have been many moments I would describe as a big break, and how I define that has changed with time. My first gallery, certainly. My first museum acquisition. My first solo show. My first real collector.
At this very moment, I am excited about being represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery, working on my first monograph with Daylight Books (due out Sept. 2015), and working on my first solo museum exhibition with curator Amy Galpin at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College in Florida.