John Dugdale

Judy Seigel suggested the best way to get a hold of John Dugdale was by phone and she gave me his numbers, one for his place in West Village Manhattan, one for his place in the country. She observed that being nearly blind, John didn’t spend a lot of time reading e-mail.My interest in cyanotypes started on seeing John’s work in print. I was aware of the history of the process, Herschel’s invention in 1843 making it one of the earliest methods of fixing an image. The accomplished practitioners of cyanotype seem to have been few and far between, with Anna Atkins being one of the most prominent. Her photograms of British algae were assembled into the first photobook. Algae has perhaps never been depicted so sublimely.

John Dugdale was a successful commercial photographer in Manhattan in 1993 when an AIDS related stroke left him in the hospital for months often near death. While he recovered, CMV retinitis blinded him in his right eye and took all but 20% of his vision in his left eye. 

John returned to a personal photography after leaving the hospital switching to an antique large format Kodak camera. John employs friends and family, personal belongings and his home in his portraits, still lives and landscapes. His work hearkens back to the time of Herschel, Talbot and Cameron – an emerging time of photography and photographic vision. Relying on an assistant to focus the image on the ground glass, John directs his personal vision and style in the composition in front of him. He relies on his previous professional experience when he had full vision in understanding how light strikes and models objects, and how a slight turn of a vase or flex of an arm can strengthen the final expression. His intimate and delicate images are confidently and strongly composed. While acknowledging his 19th century influences, his work has the leanness of a modern simple sensibility.

I’ve seen his work in reproduction in several books. His first book, Lengthening Shadows before Nightfall, was published by Twin Palms in 1995 and was followed by Life’s Evening Hour which juxtaposes John’s images with passages from Dickinson and the Bible. The reproductions are quite good. I went to PhotoLA in January in the hopes of seeing some of his original prints but was unsuccessful. As I scouted around the net looking for John’s local gallery representation I came across a reminder that 21st Photography had published The Clandestine Mind in a deluxe edition with photogravure reproductions of John’s work. Given my additional interest in the photogravure process, I called up Lance Speer and asked if there was any remote possibility of one of those editions remaining. He said I was in luck, and he quickly shipped a copy out. The photogravure reproductions were wonderful. Lance mentioned they were made by Jon Goodman, and I mused again at how small the world is and at the connections to be found.

I was nervous calling up John. So much of my communication is by e-mail, I’d forgotten how personal a phone call could be. I’m not sure when the last time was I called someone up unannounced.  I left messages at both his numbers (his message in the country mentioning he was probably in the field). He called me back later that day and the first thing that struck me was his voice – a bit unexpected, warm and no nonsense. I told him how much I loved his work, and we talked about some of his prints, and we chatted at length about making cyanotypes.

It was a simple and unadorned conversation about family, photography, and vision. I went into my darkroom later and tackled cyanotypes anew.

One Comment

  1. donbga
    Posted Monday, March 9, 2009 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Hi Brian,

    I’ve discovered your blog from a post Mark Nelson made on the PDN forum. I must say I like it a lot.

    John Dugdale’s cyanotypes are quite wonderful. I’m fortunate to have caught one of his shows here in the Atlanta area at the Jackson Fine Art gallery a few years back. Looking at his cyanotypes should inspire anyone to work with blue prints.

    Unfortunately there are so many poor examples on the web for cyanotypes and I think that tends to leave the unexperienced with the wrong idea about how beautiful they can be.

    Keep on blogging!


    Don Bryant

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