By Kathlee Cleveland
Jess Dugan is not weird. In fact, Dugan might be the most normal person I know—the gifted photographer has a masters degree and divorced parents. At this point, Dugan considers herself pretty normal, too. But this realization took many years, many photographs and a move out east to achieve.
Dugan refuses to identify as any specific gender, and though born biologically female, prefers to remain androgynously transgendered. While the concept of ambiguous, trans and queer identity is certainly familiar to Boston, a city with an active and growing LGBT community, Dugan grew up in Little Rock, Ark., where conservative ideologies weren't as accepting ... to say the least.
"I've still always been attracted to things that are really Southern," Dugan says. "I guess that's me trying to figure out what I am so nostalgic about in that place, but also knowing that I couldn't be who I am, as an artist and as a queer person. There's no box for me in those people's minds."
Many of Dugan's past works feature the South, and more specifically, the artist's father, who still lives there with his collection of rifles, which he takes "everywhere." "I do have a lot of love for [my father] despite our cultural differences. So, all of the images [of him] are kind of loving but different," Dugan says. "I'm very interested in photographing both of my parents because I feel very much like both of them, then not at the same time. What parts of me are my mom and what parts of me are my father? I think everyone does that on an intellectual level, but I do it in my work."
This approach to self-exploration exists throughout Dugan's collection, entitledCoupled, as each portrait features a couple that Dugan describes as "queer, with some connection to female identity." Some couples are lesbian identified, some f-to-m transgendered, some m-to-f, but all of the subjects are captured with the same lighting, same framing and similar poses, building an interesting and complex collection.
Dugan decided to shoot this way to have the opportunity to use MassArt's giant Polaroid camera, one of five in the world, though it provided limited options for styling. Some of the subjects are friends—one features her mother and her partner—and others are strangers, but all feel similarly personal and candid. "At first it was about the couples as people," she says, "then it became a slice of the culture that you could look at and examine. It's a very classical style. It's not confrontational, it's approachable."
With the gay community's constant struggle for marriage rights (everywhere but here), Dugan's work is undeniably appropriate. Politics and art are often polarizing, but the collection still conveys a political message on a very personal level by focusing on the individual instead of a message. "There's so many representations of trans people," Dugan says. "My best reaction, as basic as it is, is when someone realizes that trans people are human."
THURSDAY 3.4.10 THROUGH SATURDAY 4.10.10
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