Jess T. Dugan’s “Every Breath We Drew” at Montserrat Gallery

By Joey Phoenix

When an artist chooses to point her camera at a person, a conversation begins. The conversation isn’t just about how photographic technique and the effect of light captures appearance but instead encapsulates the perspective of the photographer and the reality of the human being who is being photographed.

Sometimes that conversation is removed from its source material, not necessarily dishonest, but distant in a way where the viewer doesn’t feel like they know the subject in the photograph.

And then there’s the work of Jess T. Dugan.

In her exhibition “Every Breath We Drew”, Dugan opens a window into the lives of people doing seemingly normal people things. What may be unexpected is that these people also happen to be gender nonconforming, members of the LGBTQIA+ or GSM community, and otherwise under-represented people of all ages and backgrounds.

“I hope for viewers to reflect on how ordinary the people photographed are. They are not spectacle, they are not ‘freaks’ as Arbus would write, they are people,” says Nathan Lewis, Director of Exhibitions and Public Programs at Montserrat College of Art. “People in love, people relaxing, people in contemplation, people in struggle, people, who much like one image in particular shows, put their boots on one foot at a time.”

Dugan made her first serious foray into photography when she was 16, and has since undergone transformation both in her private life and her artistic endeavors. In that span of time she has won multiple awards, published multiple volumes of photographs – including Every Breath We Drew, Daylight Books, 2015, and exhibited her work in prestigious galleries all over the country.

She started this particular series in 2011, and it struck a personal chord with her.

“Unlike previous projects of mine, the subjects are not united by one particular identity, but instead are united by my attraction to them – and not a romantic attraction, particularly, but a more complicated attraction of recognizing something in them that I also perceive or desire in myself.” She said in an interview with Dawoud Bey in 2014.

These images bring the viewer in, making them wonder about lives of the people represented. Who are they? What are they like?

“It is wonderful to see an exhibition [like this] made with a compassionate eye,” says Lewis. “Dugan’s intimacy with the subjects is evident. Many of those photographed meet the viewers’ gaze, looking back as deeply as one looks in. In a time when courts are mandating who qualifies for personhood, the gazes seem to ask: ‘Do I?…Do you?'”

“Every Breath We Drew” will be on display at Montserrat Gallery until March 16th, 2019. The opening reception, celebrations, and a talk with the artist will take place on January 31. Click here for more information on times and locations for those events.


Joey Phoenix is a performance artist, pet photographer, and the Managing Editor of Creative North Shore. Follow them on Twitter @jphoenixmedia. If you have an idea for a story, feature, or pictures of adorable llamas, feel free to send them a message at joey@jphoenixmedia.com 

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