Landscape Stories: How important are other arts: music, literature, philosophy, etc... in your work and life?
Doug Dubois: Music is very important, but I couldn't really tell you how or even why. When I was in grade school and high school I played the trombone – a strange, somewhat awkward instrument. I wasn't very good at all, but it got me listening to music apart from the rock and roll, punk and pop tunes that permeated my high school. My father helped me set up a darkroom in the basement of our home and I rigged an FM radio antenna to a pipe so I could get good reception. I was a regular listener to WFMU, a free form radio station that would jump from Mozart to Captain Beefheart, Coltrane to John Cage all in one set. I also caught the obsessive birthday broadcasts of WKCR from Columbia University that played the entire discography of jazz musicians 24/7. I discovered Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Sun Ra and Charlie Parker while I made prints or developed film. So I guess I learned about photography and music together but I couldn't tell you how one directly informs the other, except that they are intimately, almost physically connected in my mind.
When I was in graduate school, I tried to do a project with a street musician. It failed miserably, but it taught me some important things about the limits of photography and the openness of music.
The influence of literature and film are more obvious in my work. The title of my book, All the Days and Nights is taken from a short story by William Maxwell, a long time editor at the New Yorker and a writer who handles language with transparent grace. I sometimes make photographs based on film stills from a collection I keep on my computer, and my lighting is simply a crude attempt to create a cinematic mis en scene.
I'm not a connoisseur about anything but one of the things I try to convey to my students is that inspiration doesn't find you, you have to actively seek it out by looking, listening and thinking in places that aren't easy or obvious.
Landscape Stories: Larry Sultan and Jim Goldberg are both important influences. As for their personal and professional guidance, has it been decisive for your education?
Doug Dubois: I first met Larry Sultan when I went to visit the San Francisco Art Institute and sat in on one of his critiques. As a prospective grad student, I felt I had to impress people and kind of made an ass of myself. Larry was generous enough to accept my application anyway. His work wasn't very well known at the time and his family work wasn't known at all. I applied with photographs of my family and had no idea how lucky I was to be at SFAI and work with Larry and the rest of the faculty. The most important time I spent with Larry when I helped him print his first exhibition at MOMA. He rented the darkroom where I worked as a color printer and together we made the exhibition prints over a period of several weekends. I think I learned as much in those weekends as I did in my two years of grad school.
I knew Jim Goldberg through his book, Rich and Poor. We became friends in San Francisco and he has given me invaluable advice over the years. He is often, the first person I show photographs to for feedback and advice on editing. He is unbelievably sharp and intuitive – you can see it, of course, in his books and exhibitions. He seems to only get better, more complex and interesting with each project.
Landscape Stories: The use of light is very important. To what extent does the light help to create the story?
Doug Dubois: I've been photographing in Ireland and the light there is both beautiful and frustrating. Clouds and storms roll in and out so quickly that at one moment it's raining, the next you have this incredible storm light, then it all seems to clear up only for the clouds to reappear and take the light away again. Each change in the light alters the tone, color and shape of the scene. You just have to roll with it and try not to get too frustrated.
When it all comes together, it's amazing. I have a photograph of this 12 or 13 year old boy, Jordan hanging from the light pole at the entrance to his neighborhood. He climbed up this 50 foot pole like it was nothing. He had to come down so I could set up my view camera. I got everything ready and Jordon went up the pole one more time. It was all there – great light and Jordon was hanging perfectly. I made one exposure and just when I put the dark slide back, three women came running out of three different houses, screaming at Jordon to get the fuck off the pole. All three glared at me without saying a word and went back inside. I got lucky in that photograph but things like that don't happen often.
I shoot a lot of interiors and for these I am often working with a mix of strobes, ambient light and the occasional halogen light. In this case it's a production, often taking hours to set up. These can get kind of labored – I'm not as fast as I should be – and involve rearranging furniture, digital or Polaroid tests and a great deal of patience on the part of the subject. My sister and nephew are a great team. One will help hold a light or a reflector when I photograph the other.
In the end, no matter how elaborate or spontaneous the light is, it has to serve the emotional tenor and the meaning of the image. If the light takes over the image you can have a virtuosic display of nothing, and if light isn't there or it's not right, then it's the opposite problem – a poor expression of a great idea.
Landscape Stories: Regarding the project "... all the days and nights". Looking at your work evokes a feeling of something like an intimate family album. Could you tell us something more about your process of discovery while beginning this body of work?
Doug Dubois: The photographs of my family began when I first took up photography as a teenager. They were available and patient subjects for me to use while I was trying to learn how to handle my camera. I didn't take the images seriously until after college when I made some of the first photographs in my book: my father going to work, my mother with her new haircut, my sister getting dressed on Christmas Eve, my brother in a hotel room. At the time I made them, however, I was still thinking they would lead to something else – photographs of commuters, for example, rather than a project about my family.
Things changed when my father fell from the train on his way home from work. Photographing became a way to deal with the trauma of my father's accident. I brought these early photographers with me to San Francisco where I was just starting grad school and I would go home to New Jersey during breaks and summers to make as many photographs as my parents and siblings would tolerate.
When the photographs started getting exhibited and published, I had my doubts about the project and how it served – or more precisely – didn't serve my relationship to my family. I stopped photographing and showing the work for a number of years. When I picked it up again, my approach had shifted away from trying to make photographs in the moment to images and portraits that were more set up and considered. I was also older and able to come to grips with what was at stake in the photographs. In a sense, as the photographs became more directed and less spontaneous, the process became more collaborative.
The photographs do not function at all like a family album – no one in my family would consider sitting down together and leafing through the book to reminisce about the past. Although many of the photographs alone are fine on their own and hang in my family's various homes, the book itself is not an easy read for anyone.
Landscape Stories: Do you have a method of working which you follow for each series, or does it vary for each different project?
Doug Dubois: I'm not terribly systematic and each project makes different demands and offers up unique challenges. I certainly have a discernable set of techniques and approaches, but they vary enough, I think, to keep things interesting.
In Ireland, I'm often just wandering around with a camera, hoping to stumble upon a photograph – like Jordan up the pole, or a small crowd of people watching a neighbor paint his house, or Kevin and Eirn just getting out of bed at 2 in the afternoon. It's been a long, long time since I've worked that way and it feels fresh and full of possibilities. As long as that feeling remains, I'll keep at it.
Landscape Stories: Why is your attention often turned towards the details? Is this something you are thinking about during the creation of a photograph?
Doug Dubois: I think the best photographs and all good art offer up, if you take the time to look or listen, nuanced layers of meaning that only come across in the details. The first impression, as powerful as it may be, will only last and linger if there are echoes and small surprises in the work that can be discovered over time. Details, in this sense, are not simply small, visual clues that can escape your notice but larger meanings that aren't immediately apparent.
Landscape Stories: You've been teaching for years at Syracuse University in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. About this: to what extent is it possible to teach photography?
Doug Dubois: I'm a product of academic photographic training and while it is certainly not the only way to learn the craft and not necessarily the best way to become an artist, if you are lucky enough to stumble into the right people and don't waste your time, school can make a critical difference. I'm pretty confident in my abilities as a teacher but in the end, teachers don't make artists. That happens outside of school when you try to manage your life and work on your own. The vast majority of art students lose faith in their efforts once the support and community of school is gone.
I know that sounds like faint praise of teaching, but in the end I'm less interested, in producing more photographers — the word has more than enough. My ultimate goal is to graduate smart, responsible, creative citizens, which is really idealistic, and demands a great deal of faith in the promise of education.
Graduate students are a bit different. They've already made the commitment to being an artist and I take that seriously. We do our best, my colleagues and I, to connect them with other artists, curators and thinkers who are important and relevant to their work and practice as contemporary artists. It's up to them to make use of these connections once they get out of school. My favoriteaspectof teaching is when a former student goes out into the world and we simply become friends and colleagues.
Interview by Gianpaolo Arena