In an age when flash memory is rapidly replacing film, 22-year- old photographer Jess Dugan is as much a throwback as a prodigy. Her favorite camera is a large format Shen-Hao wooden field camera that uses 4'x5' film. It produces rich black and white tones with sharp detail, but itís not the kind of equipment you can just whip out to fire off a few quick snaps.
'But once you see the detail and beauty of a large negative, itís next to impossible to settle for less,' Dugan says.
If Dugan isnít ready for a Cartier-Bresson style 'decisive moment,' sheís always ready for a decisive encounter. Dugan was driving down an Arkansas highway when she spotted a young man dressed in an Uncle Sam costume, handing out flyers for a tax preparation company. She circled back and pulled over to chat up the man and ask to take his picture.
'When youíre walking around with this old camera and a huge amount of gear,' Dugan suggests, 'I think they trust you more than they would with a little digital. Thereís no threat of me sneaking up on them or trying to pull one over on them.'
Making a connection with her subjects, and putting them at ease, is a crucial part of Duganís process. She typically spends half an hour setting up a shot, explaining what sheís doing and inviting the subject to look through the lens and imagine the final image. 'Photography for me is exhausting,' she smiles, 'because itís emotional. You have to be really present with your subjects.'
The rapport with the subject is clearly visible in the final product. In the portrait 'Uncle Sam,' the young man gazes into the camera with a remarkable lack of self-consciousness, totally open to the viewersí gaze. Itís an openness mirrored in many of the twelve prints on display at Gallery Kayafas in an exhibit titled Rectitude.
Dugan chuckles that sheís very bad at naming exhibits, but says that the word rectitude immediately appealed when someone suggested it.
'It brings to mind the quest for truth,' she explains. 'The commitment to what is real and honest. Itís about having a sense of ethics around showing people how they are, and making [the viewer] relate to them, even if they never encounter him in real life.'
That respect for the people she photographs is evident in the body of work Dugan is best known for: a series of portraits of trans folk. Some of those images are represented at Kayafas, and Dugan is excited about how they fit in with her newer work.
'My overall goal with my work,' Dugan says, 'is to bring out the humanity in everybody, whether itís farm workers in the south or trans people in Boston. Iím not trying to exploit people, but give them a voice. Iím not taking an outside, fetishizing position. Itís more like: youíre beautiful and you should be represented as you are.'
Although she is perhaps wary of being pigeonholed as 'the trans photographer', Dugan sees in her more recent work a continuing exploration of gender. Her favorite part of the exhibit is a sequence of five crisp portraits. The first and last are clearly, almost stereotypically feminine and masculine: a woman in an elegant hat and a man in an army uniform. They bracket a male laborer in a passive pose, an androgynous child, and a butch woman.
'It brings up the fluidity of gender,' Dugan continues. 'I often think of myself as making portraits within gender ... itís not supposed to be an education. Itís supposed to embrace everyone while questioning traditional gender roles. Class comes into it too. These people, in real life, will never cross paths.'
And yet, as gallery owner Arlette Kayafa points out, the consistency of Duganís photographic style makes these portraits look they all belong to one community. For contrast, Kayafas is showing Duganís work with the photography of Amy Mondale. Where Duganís photos are intimate, casual and compelling, Montelloís are cryptic, staged, and arouse uncomfortable feelings of voyeurism. Kayafas is excited about the energy generated by these opposing ideas.
'Art should make you experience something, even if itís discomfort,' Kayafas says. 'Thereís no way some one can come in to this exhibit and not feel something.'
Dugan and Montaliís photography is on exhibit at Gallery Kayafas, 450 Harrison Avenue, through Oct. 11.2008 The opening reception is Friday, Sept. 5. 2008 from 5:30 p.m. - 8 p.m. For more information visit www.gallerykayafas.com or www.jessdugan.com.