Fine Art Photography

Jess T. Dugan on Catherine Opie, and the Importance of Seeing Yourself Represented

September 28, 2018

By Conor Risch

© Catherine Opie/Courtesy of Regen Projects, Los Angeles and Lehmann Maupin, New York and Hong Kong

“Jo, 1993” by Catherine Opie. Seeing Opie’s photographs portraying “queer and gender nonconforming people with respect and dignity” had a profound effect on Jess T. Dugan as a young artist and queer person, Dugan says.

One of the things that inspired photographer Jess T. Dugan to begin her five-year project documenting aging transgender Americans, collected in her new book, To Survive on This Shore, was the positive reaction young people had to her earlier work documenting members of the LGBTQ community, especially her portraits of older individuals. One young, transgender man shared one of her portraits on social media and wrote “this very moving paragraph…about how meaningful it was to see an older transgender man and to have a roadmap of what his life might look like,” Dugan recalls. The post went viral, and Dugan realized that the lack of images in our culture of older transgender people meant that younger ones didn’t see role models, and the broader public “didn’t understand the full experience of being transgender.” (Read our full story about To Survive On This Shore here.)

The power of seeing people like oneself “represented in the larger culture” is something Dugan knew well. “I came out as gay when I was 13 and began questioning my gender identity shortly thereafter. At the time, I didn’t see many people who looked like me represented in mainstream media,” she recalls. In high school, she frequented the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, MA, and “discovered representations of queer people” in the fine-art photography books there.

Catherine Opie’s work, in particular, had a significant influence on me,” Dugan says. Throughout her career, Opie has created conceptual documentary images that consider how community is envisioned, formed and expressed. Her early series “Being and Having” and “Portraits (1993-1997),” which depict Opie and members of the queer communities of which she was a part, were particular touchstones for Dugan. “Her images provided representations I could identify with, and depicted queer and gender nonconforming people with respect and dignity,” Dugan says. “Viewing her photographs was a powerful experience, validating my own identity while also influencing the path I would take as an artist.”

Dugan also remembers visiting Opie’s 2008 solo show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City. “The exhibition was stunning, and viewing so many of her photographs in person was a deeply moving experience. I also vividly remember walking down 5th Avenue and seeing [Opie’s] photographs of queer people on the banners lining the streets. It made me feel proud and visible, validating my queer identity in a profound and meaningful way.”

In her own work, Dugan has created nuanced depictions of marginalized communities, while also turning the camera on herself and those around her, which is something Opie has also done. “Telling my own story through self-portraiture and portraits of my family is an integral part of my work,” Dugan says. “I have found that being open about my own identity and experiences creates space for others to be open about theirs.”

Dugan says she hopes to “continue down the path [Opie] has forged, creating work that will be meaningful and validating to those who come after me.”

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