Jess T. Dugan on Portraiture

fototazo has asked twelve photographers what makes a good portrait. This is the 5th in the series of their responses. The first four came from Susan Worsham, Steve Davis, Elinor Carucci and Mark Powell.

Jess T. Dugan is a large-format portrait photographer living in Boston. She earned a BFA in Photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and
 an ALM in Museum Studies from Harvard University. Her intense, honest portraiture exploring issues of gender, identity and shared humanity is regularly exhibited nationwide. Her work is in the permanent collections of the Harvard Art Museums 
and the Michele and Donald D'Amour Museum of Fine Arts. She is represented by the Schneider Gallery in Chicago and by Gallery Kayafas in Boston where her solo show Jess T. Dugan: New Work will be on exhibit April 15 - May 28.

Jess T. Dugan: It is difficult to say what makes a good portrait because there are so many varied ways of going about it.  Some of my favorite portraits are confrontational and evocative, while others are quiet and reserved in their strength. The qualifying factor, for me, is whether or not the portrait transcends the specific details of its sitter to provide a more universal message.  It has to resonate with me somehow, in a way that is larger than simply seeing another person, or another person’s space.  I don’t think a portrait always has to have the person in it, though perhaps in the most strict sense, it does. I have been thinking a lot recently about how you can come to know someone through the space they create or the objects they surround themselves with.

I am a sucker for eyes - soulful, open, honest eyes. Those tend to be the portraits I gravitate towards most. One of my favorite artists is August Sander. I absolutely love and am inspired by the way he captured the humanity in the people he photographed. I am drawn to portraiture that makes me feel something, that moves me in a way I cannot explain. Which is precisely why what makes a "good" portrait is so hard to put into words. It can be done many ways, in an endless variety of styles or compositions or formats, but for me, I know it when I see it.

In my work, I’m drawn to making portraits that are very intimate, where I have a connection or energy with the person I’m photographing, in the hopes that the energy will be visible in the photograph and that the resulting image will go far beyond the person’s likeness.  I want to reach beyond the physical and explore the psychological, the spiritual and the emotional realm. When I feel I have done this, that the photo resonates in a larger way, then I feel like I have made a successful image. I am not really interested in photographs that don’t go beyond the surface, either in my work or in the work of others. I want a portrait to be filled with so much emotion that you can’t help but fall in love with it a little bit when you look at it, even if the subject matter is challenging. I want it to make you feel something on a visceral level.