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Hermès Foundation and Aperture Gallery are presenting “In Good Time,” a mid-career retrospective of Doug Dubois’ long-term photographic projects. The survey, on view at Aperture Gallery in New York through May 19, reunites Dubois’s three most ambitious bodies of work: “All the Days and Nights,” “Avella,” and “My Last Day At Seventeen.” Whitewall attended the opening last week and spoke with the artist about photographing his family, his time in Ireland, and about that time Jim Goldberg called him “naïve.”
WHITEWALL: How does it feel to have so much of your work in one place?
DOUG DUBOIS: I’m still soaking it in. I’ve been through a roller coaster of nervousness and anxiety over the various iterations. But I also know that if left to my own devices I would have ruined it. It would have been too crowded because I have trouble letting things go. Now that I started walking through with people who haven’t seen it before, I feel very good about it. There are a lot of threads you can follow through. I think we found a compelling enough logic.
WW: What initially inspired you to photograph your family over time for the series that eventually became “All the Days and Nights?”
DD: This first series of pictures were quite literally my application for graduate school. They’re from around 1983. I was trying to learn how to make portraits and of course who can you abuse the most if not your family? I was the nerdy high school photographer and they already had developed enough tolerance for me.
I was also in the throw of Jim Goldberg’s Rich and Poor composed of portraits with hand-written stories under them. I went to my family and asked, “Could you write something?” Later I actually got to know Jim well and told him, “my family just writes boring stuff;” he said I was very naïve about it. I looked through these images over the years and noticed these narratives were filled with irony. I realized that a portrait was something that had narrating potential, that there were ways to project a before and after, or just a life, onto the person on the photograph. My family was the first glimmer of that potential and soon after my father had a near-fatal accident; he fell from a pointer check several months after he wrote that text. Everything changed.
WW: And you continued taking these photographs?
DD: I think initially I continued to just deal. It was a way to be there and stand back, a sort of emotional protection. I later got into the graduate program at The San Francisco Art Institute. I got lucky. I had no idea what I was doing but through other people I saw that there was something significant there, beyond my therapeutic motivation.
WW: How did you transition from personal work to more reported work?
DD: I never did reported work! As the work got success and showed at the MoMA I got acquiescence but couldn’t handle galleries talking about it. I couldn’t negotiate with all the emotional things that were at stake. I started working with my grandmother in the house where my father grew up in the old coal-mining town of Avella, PA. So the work was still attached to family, there was a real continuity. At the time I used this as a way of imagining how it would have been if my father had never left and I would be living there around these people.
WW: What about your project in Cobh, Ireland?
DD: It was serendipitous. I got invited. The Sirius Art Center did this residency and asked if I wanted to come out. I almost didn’t go because—why Ireland?—I had no reason to be there, no family, nothing. But I still went thinking it was a cool trip.
I asked to get connected to some group or community there to make a book and was brought to a group of kids that had dropped out of school. Two weeks into it I was ready to go, but two weeks later I asked if I could come back next summer, and they gave me an open invitation. So every summer for five years I went and made pictures.
WW: How do you establish trust between you and your subjects?
DD: Every time I would return over the summer I brought hundred of images and that was a big part of it: they saw what I was doing. Also just simply returning. The first time I said, “Oh, next summer I’ll come back.” the fact that I really did surprised everyone. After it became expected. Also, the way I work is very collaborative. I would ask certain kids to help, notably a very tough 10-6 kid, Luke. I would just go out to him and say, “Okay, I have to put this over my head can you watch my back.” So I trust them as well.
WW: Who are the photographers or artists that inspire you?
DD: Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg. For many years I worked as an analog color printer for Jim Epstein while in graduate school. Everything I know about color comes from him. There are many more but these are three important ones.
“In Good Time” is on view at Aperture Gallery through May 19