Jess T. Dugan
Portrait by Bryan Birks
Every Breath We Drew explores the power of identity, desire, and connection through portraits of myself and others. Working within the framework of queer experience, my portraits examine the intersection between private, individual identity and the search for intimate connection with others. Rather than attempting to describe a specific identity or group – the gender identity and sexual orientation of the individuals varies – Every Breath We Drew asks larger questions about how identity is formed, desire is expressed, and intimate connection is sought.
My creative practice centers around an exploration of identity – particularly gender and sexuality – through photographic portraiture. Drawing from my experience as a queer, non-binary person, my work is motivated by an existential need to understand and express myself and to connect with others. My intention is to create work that facilitates intimacy and encourages empathy, understanding, and critical conversations about identity and contemporary social life. As I pursue these aims, I continually explore what it means to live authentically and how visual representation – particularly photographic portraiture – plays a powerful role in that process.
Formally, I use a medium-format camera, natural light, and a slow working method to combine a traditional style of photographing with contemporary subject matter. My work does not attempt to provide definitive answers; rather, it invites viewers to engage with others in an intimate, meaningful way, requiring them to reflect on their own identities in the process.
When and how did you get started in photography?
I always had an interest in photography, but I took my first formal class during my last year of high school, when I was 16. I immediately fell in love with it and pursued a BFA in Photography the following year at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design.
What does photography give you? What is it that you try to achieve with photography?
Photography is the way I understand myself and my place in the world. It is a powerful tool for connecting with others, both in the making and exhibiting of the work.
What do you think makes a truly great image?
This is so subjective, but for me personally, a great image is not only formally compelling, but it communicates something about the vision and desires of the maker. I am often most interested in work that seems urgent, as if the photographer needed to make it to process or understand something about their own life.
Who were your early influences and where do you get your inspiration from today?
My most significant early influences were photographers whose work engaged with queer communities and issues surrounding identity. As a teenager, I was looking for images I could relate to, images that validated my emerging queer and non-binary identity. Catherine Opie was an important early influence, as well as Robert Mapplethorpe and Del LaGrace Volcano. A little later, in art school, I became exposed to the work of artists like Diane Arbus, August Sander, Claude Cahun, and Dorothea Lange, all of whom became important to me. And, still later, I embedded in a community of amazing portrait photographers who often began as influences or artists I admired from afar and then became friends, mentors, or peers. In this category, I include Dawoud Bey, Kelli Connell, Richard Renaldi, Gillian Laub, Elinor Carucci, and so many others…
What drew you to pursue a project on this subject? How did the idea come about?
Every Breath We Drew is a long-term project focused on the intersection of individual identity and the need for connection and intimacy with others. I view this series as my most central work and conceptualize it as a lifelong undertaking. As I grow and change, the work changes, too. Over the past two years, during the pandemic, the work took on greater emotional and psychological intensity. My work helped me process the isolation and disconnection that we all collectively experienced and allowed me to work through existential questions about myself, my life, and my relationships.
What is your shooting process and work flow? How much of the project is staged versus documenting candid moments?
I work slowly and collaboratively with my subjects, often spending an hour or more making a single portrait. I draw influence from portrait painting and carefully use the elements of color and light to create a specific mood. My photographs are highly formal, but I’m always seeking a moment of real emotional connection between myself and the subject; my photographs depend on this exchange, and my working process creates the conditions under which it can happen.
How did your project develop and change between your start and end dates? What challenges did you face in the making of this project?
Because the project is very long-term (currently 10+ years in the making), it is always changing and evolving. I try to photograph instinctually and then follow the photographs to see where they’re leading me. I learn about myself through my work.
What do you find most fulfilling about this project?
I love how my practice allows me to connect with other people on a deep, meaningful level. My work gives me license to spend time with people I’m interested in and create and nurture relationships that I wouldn’t have otherwise.
Has receiving a Lucie Foundation Scholarship impacted your career, and if yes, how?
Yes, the Lucie Foundation Scholarship provided me with time to make new photographs. As an artist, my most valuable currency is time, which is directly connected to funding. I am always grateful for the financial support that makes my practice possible.
What’s next for you?
I’ve just completed a new book, Look at me like you love me, which combines photographs and personal writings. It is being published by MACK and will be available in the United States in January 2022. I also currently have an exhibition on view at the St. Louis Art Museum (through February 20) that includes twenty photographs from the past two years.
I’m also making work for another project about my family, which I’ve been working on since 2012. A selection of this work will be on view in an exhibition called Kinship at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in the fall of 2022.
My series To Survive on This Shore, which I made between 2013-2018, is on view at the George Eastman Museum in Rochester, NY through January and will travel to the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art at Portland State University in the spring of 2022 and then on to another (not yet public) museum August-December of 2022.
Overall, I’ve had a busy period in the studio recently working on my book and producing several exhibitions. I’m currently looking forward to making pictures, doing some writing, and beginning to see where my new work will take me.
JESS T. DUGAN