Interview: Doug DuBois, Part I

© Doug DuBois, studio at MacDowell Colony

This is a different type of interview, a summary of several conversations extended over six weeks with current Guggenheim Fellow Doug DuBois while he works at the MacDowell Colony to turn his photographic series titled My Last Day at Seventeen into a book.

This is the first in a series of three posts that will follow DuBois through his process of editing and sequencing images for the book, providing a window into his ideas and working methods. Images and additional information provided by DuBois will augment the three posts.

My Last Day at Seventeen is comprised of portraits, staged tableaus and spontaneous photographs made over a period of four summers in a small housing estate in the town of Cobh, County Cork, Ireland. The images as a whole speak about coming of age in Ireland during the current economic downturn. For some background on his project, take a few minutes to watch a clip about My Last Day at Seventeen on the program Imeall (Gaelic for "The Edge") on Ireland's TG4 and also read through "Snapshots from the rough edges" by Aidan Dunne in the Irish Times. Some of the images from the project can also be found here.

DuBois teaches at Syracuse University and at the International Limited Residency Program at the Hartford Art School. His work has been shown in numerous solo and group exhibitions, including shows at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, The Museum of Modern Art and Higher Pictures in New York and galleries in Europe and Japan. His images belong to the permanent collections of The Museum of Modern Art and The San Francisco Museum of Art as well as many others. In addition to the Guggenheim, he now has received two MacDowell Colony residencies, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Artist Fellowship, a Yaddo Fellowship, and a Light Work Grant in Photography among other awards and grants. A monograph of his photographs titled ...All the Days and Nights was published by Aperture in 2009.

He arrived at MacDowell on December 21st and the first two conversations summarized here in this post took place on December 30th and January 2nd. Bracketed text inside of quotes represent an approximation of DuBois' words...our Skype connections have not always been ideal and the audio recordings of the conversations reflect that.

© Doug DuBois, Adams Studio at MacDowell Colony


DuBois was also at MacDowell Colony in 2003. During that initial residency, he worked for the first time on editing a book of photographs, beginning work on what eventually would become ...All the Days and Nights.

Before he began his first residency at MacDowell, he sought out the advice of Jim Goldberg and others about their editing process and spent a month in his studio at MacDowell culling single frames from hundreds of contact sheets and arranging them in what he thought was a coherent sequence. When DuBois left, however, he says the book dummy he produced was "an absolute piece of shit. It was terrible." The reason? He didn’t realize how critical it was to test edits and sequences by showing the maquette to others. At MacDowell he got caught up alone in his thoughts; when he began to share it, he realized it made little sense. He had to start over. He says, though, it wasn't time wasted: "You have to let yourself make a really bad book, with some reeeeeally bad edits and sequences. It’s very important." He doesn’t expect to have the book finished upon leaving this time, just to have something. Changes will continue as he starts to show the first copy of the maquette after his residency.

The images from My Last Day at Seventeen were made over four consecutive summers. As a photographer he cycles between periods of shooting and editing, and as a self-professed poor multi-tasker, he typically works on one project at a time. He carried a Mamiya 7, Mamiya RZ, a 4x5 view camera, a DSLR, and lights, using the four cameras interchangeably based on the situation. The digital camera served largely to test lighting and take snapshots.

I asked how he decided it's time to put down the cameras and craft the book. How is he sure he has the images he needs at this point and that the book will come together?

He responds:
One of the signs, not the only sign, but one of the signs of when a project is nearing completion is that you begin to repeat images. It’s like, 'Oh yeah, I've already made that picture'...I also felt I was wearing out my welcome. The first time in the neighborhood I was a somewhat exotic American with a camera - either that or a fuckin' perv which I was called repeatedly during my first few weeks there - and I could kind of milk that, people were nice to me because I was a visitor and interested in their lives. When I returned each summer, I entered the fabric and the rhythms of the neighborhood, which was good, but I also became a pain in the ass. 'Oh fuck, here comes that American, he’s going to want to take pictures.' You know? And I could see that people sometimes tried to avoid me. Also it was hard to ask the Sirius Arts Centre in Cobh, who had originally invited me for a month-long residency in 2009, to put me up in their artists' apartment for 5 or 6 weeks each summer. After four years of this, I think I hold the record for their longest residency. I was incredibly fortunate that the director, Peg Amison, the staff and members of the Irish Arts Council remained generous, helpful, and enthusiastic about the project for so long.
With shooting finished, then, DuBois arrives at MacDowell to make the images into a book.

© Doug DuBois, Sign-in board, Adams Studio

I ask DuBois about the books and other reference material he's brought to MacDowell and he quickly mentions Ron Jude's Lick Creek Line, citing how Jude smartly plays with time and sequence in the book, Viviane Sassen's Parasomnia for its activation of the page itself by running images beyond one page onto the next, as well as Alec Soth, Mark Steinmetz, Jackie Nickerson, Susan Lipper, and John Gossage because they make great books.

A number of the books he has brought with him are there because he likes how the photographers have fit the rectangles of the photographs inside the rectangle of the page. And when a book has a shape and size that feels right, he measures. Why reinvent the wheel?

He subsequently sent an email with his complete list of reference materials:

Photo Books:
Ron Jude: Lick Creek Line, Emmet
Jackie Nickerson: Faith
Viviane Sassen: Parasomnia
Mark Power: The Sound of Two Songs
John Gossage: The Pond
Alec Soth: Sleeping by the Mississippi
Susan Lipper: Grapevine
Mark Steinmetz: South Central
Christian Patterson: Redheaded Peckerwood
Tobias Zielony: Trona: Armpit of America
Gregory Halpern: A
Thomas Struth: Stanger and Friends
Ken Schles: Oculus
Chris Killip: Seacoal
Christophe Agou: In the Face of Silence
J. Carrier: Elementary Calculus
Leonie Hampton: In the Shadow of Things

Other Books:
Claire Keegan: Antartica, Walk in the Blue Fields, Foster
The Granta Book of the Irish Short Story
Tod Papageorge: Core Curriculum
Michael Fried: Why Photography Matters as Art as Never Before
Ariella Azoulay: The Civil Contract of Photography
MacDowell reading – poems of Honor Moore

My hard drive w/ 90 gigs -- Lots of jazz, Bach, Brazilian, Latin, whatever…

Watching what I can from the MacDowell Library
Natalia Almada: El Velador, El General
Dee Rees: Pariah
Lots of Jem Cohen

Using what he learned during his first residency, DuBois comes to MacDowell with all of his contact sheets scanned at a resolution that allows him to pull any frame he wants and drop it into a page-layout program – he uses InDesign to create scaled down page spreads to fit on 8 1/2" x 11" paper.

Even though he hasn’t had an extended opportunity to engage with the images, he has been loosely, but consistently, editing the scanned negatives in Lightroom over the four years he has been shooting the project. He has already gone back and looked for any missed possibilities and the last pass almost doubled the number of images under consideration. Four years has changed how he views the original images significantly.

DuBois has the clearance to use the images he's working with. He built up a good level of trust with his subjects and informally involved them in decisions on which images to include in a recent exhibition at the Sirius Arts Centre, just a short walk from the neighborhood where most of the work was shot. He also brought back images every summer, giving away 100s of prints and gauging reactions. Because he was working with minors and outside of the United States, he secured the necessary releases and talked to the parents and adults involved with their lives.

His first step at MacDowell is to take three days to print out a modest-sized image of absolutely every photograph he’s thinking about using - 100s of images - on an HP color laser printer he’s brought, which he says is cheaper and faster than using an inkjet.

When the prints are done, he makes about 25 piles of the images based on very obvious, denotative criteria – such as Roisin, Kevin, Eirn, and other various people – just so he can find the images. Then DuBois starts to play with the images, and they go in and out of their original piles as he begins to edit.

© Doug DuBois, Image piles

With the images laid out on table, he can work quickly, shifting images around. The playing is a kind of "indulgence." He says, "Maybe it's like a writer trying to write everyday: you just do it, and you try not to think too hard about it." He has an eight-foot table and plenty of wall-space to work with the images. Given that in Lightroom he can fluidly and easily group images together as "collections" and then print out the collections as contact sheets for reference - for example "fights," "houses," or "close-up portraits" - he doesn’t actually have to make certain piles in order to find and work with the images. Once he has a sequence he wants to hold on to, he logs the sequence on Lightroom, the images go back to their piles, and he starts again.

After three or four passes through the images and contact sheets, he told himself he's got to get beyond the "singular image." He began to print out all the frames of a given situation and to think sequentially. He obsessed on two groups of sequential images: one of a drinking spot as well as another of a bonfire. He focused on what he says will probably be a complete tangent: 70 medium format images shot at a distance – like a landscape - of a group of 15- and 16-year olds "bush drinking."

When he wants more permanence, or wants to contemplate an image or group of images for a while, he pins them to the wall and he has done so with each of the 70 frames in this sequence. [see image below] He thought of it originally as a landscape or panorama, but now he's fascinated with how the figures move through the landscape, form groups, and break apart, only to have more kids arrive and the cycle start again. One of the boys recently committed suicide and DuBois can't help but track his movement among the groups. He studies the patterns in their movement and tries to figure out how to represent them on a page. "I’m really interested in trying to do something explicitly filmic. Sequences are at the top of my head right now, and how to work sequences in a book." He considers a landscape orientation as a possible solution, even though he has more general interest in books that have a portrait orientation.

© Doug DuBois, Exploring a sequence of images

In his process, DuBois goes back and forth between sequenced, small-print images and page layouts. The more content driven editing happens when he plays with the images on the table, looking at what photographs say next to each other. He then moves to the computer to drop the images into page spreads and look at the sequence on a more formal level. When he has a sequence of something that interests him, he prints it out to see how it reads when turning the pages.

There is a big difference, he comments, between looking at a spread and turning the page. "I can never get the rhythm from looking at a spread. I have to spit it out as a book, tape it up, and turn the page." He makes a number of tiny accordion style mini-books, just watching the rhythm of the pages as he flips through. He audibly calls out the sounds of the images as he goes to help him understand if the sequence is working. A sequence that sounds like "da-dee-da-DUM-da" might work, whereas a more even "dum-dum-da-dum-dum" might signal a sequence that’s too even and flat.

"It’s not like any of those steps are exclusive of the other, it's not like you don't think about content when you're turning the pages and all that," he says, but each part of the process tends to focus on one aspect of editing more than others.

By deciding to work with more explicitly filmic sequences he has created an interesting design challenge. How can he establish the rhythm along the page, how close should the images be to each other? Should they be on the left or right of the spread or both? Should he activate the page itself by wrapping images around the page edge? Should he consider a sequence like a flip book?

When he had a dummy of ...All the Days and Nights that he thought was very close to a finished book, he produced an accordion book to full-scale and watched how people looked at it. He noted their body language to see where they paused and to see where they moved through rapidly; it gave a lot of information about readability, pacing, and interest. When the maquette of the new book gets to a more advanced stage, he'll do the same thing.

As far as quantity of images for the book, he's not thinking about it at this early stage. He's working very intuitively right now, trying to make use of everything and letting one image lead to another. By our second conversation, he already has a number of these sequences – he's 35-40 pages into a book layout. "It's likely to be this totally Baroque, overblown piece of shit, but things will be on the page. Then I'll say, 'OK, that’s working, I'm going to hold on to that, that’s NOT working, we’re going to break that up. That would be better before this...' Until I place them on a page and begin to rough things out, I’m not quite sure what it is."

Also in our second conversation, DuBois says he's feeling kind of queasy about his progress. The book has no shape yet, he still doesn't really have an end, or even really a beginning other than the bonfire sequence [discussed below] which seems like an interesting way to set things off: there’s conflict, fire, and house - all sorts of metaphors can be drawn from that combination. He's just starting to write down themes,  organize images in Lightroom, and produce contact sheets that are thematic. He's done one on "house," for example, and one on "play/sports." At this point he is also focused on finding transitional images, ones that might bridge evolving themes and connect sequences.

Chronology is another point he's trying to decide how to navigate. Over the course of four years, the physical appearance of his adolescent subjects changed dramatically. How can he handle the temporal narrative structure inherent in the sequential pages of a book in relation to time passing in the images? Does he want to preserve or play with the linear age narrative? Would shuffling that narrative be unnecessarily confusing...or would it be interesting? If at the end he decides not to preserve the chronology of the images, he will need to establish another kind of thematic as the main sequencing criteria.

Photographers can edit and work like writers, DuBois suggests. Some agonize over every word, some write rapidly, getting things out and on the page to edit and refine later. At this point, he falls firmly in the second category and what he really wants is to get the images and ideas flowing early on, to "vomit out some sequences and themes." Then, during the next stages - hopefully - he will be polishing these messy fragments into a finished book.

DuBois believes narrative is inherent to the book format, which is not to say the book must present a story with a coherent plot. He suggests the photobook should be read like a book of text, not just arbitrarily paged through, and that it engages narrative in a way that is difficult to accomplish, for example, in a gallery exhibition. The narrative goal is to sustain multiple readings, remain complex, and maintain a certain ambiguity that beckons you back to the work again and again. Hopefully, he says, the most interesting and complex themes will be implicit rather than explicit, although there will be some compelling and explicit ideas that will sustain the narrative framework of the book.

In ...All the Days and Nights, DuBois says, "I was very conscious to leave key images out and allow space for the viewer to create the story. I think photographs work best that way. I've always maintained that the narrative is really located between the images. You're really trying to push the reader to think about what happens between images - to imagine, to project...to fill that space with some kind of story. Those gaps are critical."

© Doug DuBois, Sequence 1 (Click for full size)

© Doug DuBois, Sequence 2 (Click for full size)

© Doug DuBois, Sequence 3 (Click for full size)

In a PDF of a three-page spreads that DuBois sends, we can see an early attempt at a filmic sequence for My Last Day at Seventeen that he is considering as the book opening. On the first spread of the sequence, he has a single image placed on the right page, with half-an-inch from the edge of the image (purple border) to the edge of a page. The half-inch reference point is a formal device that interests him and sets a standard for the following pages. On the second spread of the sequence, on the left page DuBois has let the image move all the way to the edge of the page; on the facing page, we have two images, centered, both bleeds, one to the book gutter, one to the edge of the page, again with a half-inch space between the two. In the last page of the spread, we have the half-inch border from image to page maintained, but the image moved to the left page, leaving the right page empty. The first and last pages would be, as in the PDF spreads above, empty to serve as section breaks.

The framing of the images, the kids, and sequence all move from left to right. There's a good rhythm to the sequence, as it becomes apparent that the kids, who appear to be hugging in the first image, are actually wrestling - and moving closer and closer to the fire. DuBois is trying to figure out how to activate the gutter and also the edges, as well as how to think of the image frame itself while using the rectangle of the book. He wants to keep it dynamic.

There is a strong, singular bonfire image, below, which will appear much later in the book - at a distance from the opening sequence. He knows that he could end the 5-frame sequence with this image, the best bonfire shot, as a big, full-bleed exclamation point. If he leaves that final image separate and apart from the others, however, the sequence remains open-ended and the bonfire becomes an important thread stretched throughout the book instead of a simple prelude to the work as a whole. The idea is to have images refer to other images, both sequentially and at a distance, threading the themes and narrative of the book together.

© Doug DuBois, Bonfire, Russell Heights, Cobh, IRE 2011

Parts 2 and 3 of this interview will be published in the coming weeks.