Interview: Doug DuBois, Part II

© Doug DuBois, Editing board

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

This is the second of two 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 posts. The first post in the series can be found here

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. The three conversations drawn on for this post took place on December 30th and January 2nd and 17th. 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, Editing notes

Both DuBois and I had a lot of moving parts in our lives right after our initial two conversations and two full weeks passed before we were able to talk again.

When we eventually connect, he says he had a rough week after the holidays. He had felt solid about the beginning of the book draft – the five-image bonfire sequence discussed in the first part of this interview – but that nothing else was working. He says his head swirled with all of the choices he had to make, and he felt lost with the direction of the edit and sequencing.

He began to have conversations with the other artists in residence at MacDowell about where things stood with the work. The filmmaker Natalia Almada came to his studio to take a look at the images. She spoke directly while going through the sequence, saying "This doesn't work....This does...I don't know what you're doing here." He also spoke with the essayist and poet Honor Moore. She told DuBois, "You've got to go back to the basics, retreat, lay it all out in the simplest way and start again."

These two conversations helped jump-start the editing process for DuBois. He went back to the beginning, putting away all the images that he had up on his editing wall and replacing them with only the key images of the project, around 100 in total.

DuBois mentioned the relationship between the creative processes of writers and photographers a number of times during our conversations, especially in terms of what he and other photographers can learn from observing writers. A writing aphorism became a guiding principle for his renewed editing process: "start simply with chronology." He did so within the 100 images he placed on the wall, tacking them up based on characters, and within characters he kept chronology.

At the same time that he organized this simplified, chronological re-edit, a New Yorker article by John McPhee entitled "Structure" serendipitously arrived on his iPad. In the article, McPhee discuses how he organizes his complicated non-fiction pieces, presenting a number of diagrams in the article that show how the parts of a piece interconnect. In response, DuBois started to diagram My Last Day at Seventeen and the book finally started to come together (an image of his diagram and more discussion on this below).

Building from another writing adage borrowed from McPhee who said he can't begin writing until he knows the end of a piece, DuBois sequenced photographs from the start and end of the book, working towards the middle. He knew what the last picture was going to be and had been playing with the bonfire sequence as an opening since arriving at MacDowell. He had a bit of a crisis getting the middles to meet, but eventually they did, and that's where he's at now. The project has been edited down to 78 images and a finished draft. DuBois feels on track and excited.

© Doug DuBois, the "real estate image" (rough scan)

The book draft came together just three days before our conversation and DuBois says it remains very tenuous and could still fall apart. He decided it was time to give the editing a rest and began to make PDFs of the book to send out for feedback, as well as to print out a second copy of the maquette to see what he has as a physical object.

He nervously delivered the PDFs to a small circle of trusted photography friends. The first three to reply – who we'll call AS, JN and OW for this post - all talked about trimming the book down, saying DuBois still has room to make cuts from specific points in the edit. They each suggested a cut of five to ten images, but only one image was slated to be cut by each of them. DuBois tells me, "You can't make a book by consensus, that's ridiculous, BUT it gives you pause and it gives you something to focus on."

The image that they all suggested for cutting is "the real estate" image (above), a photograph DuBois has believed to be important because it mimics and reinforces themes found in a second image he calls "the soccer kid." The soccer kid functions as a junction box for the various themes of the book. In the image, the kid is wearing a jersey with the logo of the nearly-failed international insurance company AIG  (below). The photograph combines ideas of sports, corporation, economics, and the housing market that the subjects of the book will never afford. DuBois calls these types of images "transition" images and says that they are exciting and crucial to find in the editing process.

© Doug DuBois, the "soccer kid image"

DuBois was told that while the soccer kid works, the real estate image is too obvious in how it approaches these themes. This comment points to an important element in the editing/feedback process. How subtle should DuBois make the presentation? What's readable and what's confusing? These questions are difficult – probably impossible – to answer internally and DuBois looks for reactions to the PDF to help him understand where the current edit stands in relation to these questions.

DuBois has a self-proclaimed sentimental streak, and the respondents have gone after images that are overtly sentimental. DuBois does not want the images to read that way, but does want certain sentiments of childhood to come through, and wants to avoid – on the other side of the spectrum – a purely tough and cynical presentation. Pulling this off will be difficult, and again requires feedback to understand how the images are reading.

The three respondents also gave DuBois feedback on his layout and the placement of the images on the page. AS is nervous about how DuBois has placed images across the book's gutter, telling DuBois that the gutter is always difficult and, while it might make AS appear conservative, he always avoids the gutter. JN and OW wrote that a number of images deserve their own page instead of being part of a double-page spread with images.

This feedback pushed DuBois towards a reconsideration of his initial layout ideas and towards an exploration of a more conservative layout approach: a single image on a page, typically biased slightly to the right. He began to think through the classic layout ideas used by both AS and JN. The emerging layout strategy for DuBois is a series of single image pages and occasionally two images, one on each page. DuBois continues to leave open the idea of engaging the gutter to offer another rhythmic possibility to the sequence, but he acknowledges that what AS told him is true: it's a complicated proposition to pull off well. "I keep looking at different books," he says "[seeing] how people manage it. Bad design is often at the fold. A fold just fucks it up. It's tricky."

While he has arrived at a finished draft, he also wants to go through a round of exploration to see what comes out of making some radical shifts before making final layout decisions.

© Doug DuBois, Diagram of the themes in My Last Day at Seventeen

MacDowell afforded DuBois time to look at images in a prolonged way, open up their meanings and possible relationships to each other. He struggled initially, however, with articulating the themes and subthemes of the project.

He talked about how he uncovered and focused on certain themes while shooting and editing before his arrival at MacDowell. "Initially you're just sort of discovering, you're stumbling about, looking at this, looking at that [with the camera]. [You make some attempts] that just go nowhere and you say, 'OK, well, that doesn't make sense.' But you have to have a sense of where you're going. I initially thought My Last Day at Seventeen was going to be about the neighborhood as a whole. It's relatively small, very insular, it's manageable, it's interesting. But by the second summer, I realized it would be more interesting if I created an adult-less world. Without adults, I could remain in this somewhat mythic space of youth. I'm looking at it through [the knowledge] of a middle-aged man, knowing it's going to fade, that it's going to end, that it's quite fragile, and also quite beautiful. I'm celebrating this time in a more complicated framework that is simultaneously about loss. It's about the tension between youth and coming of age."

DuBois moves on to talk about the major threads that he has teased out of the images to provide a coherent thematic foundation for the book. Building from the two conversations about simplifying and getting back to the basics that he had with Almada and Moore, he established five major thematic sequences in the book that are simply titled and – for now, he says - somewhat vaguely articulated. It's a foundation, however, that has allowed him to build. He has labeled the sequences "intro," "boys," "home/girls," "the rocks" – which has to do with drinking - and "end." A number of the images cross between the sequence types. There are boys present in some of the "home/girls" images, for example, and the "boys" images have girls in the images. It's overall a simple scheme, but the step of laying things out this way has been critical for breaking his stalemate. Following McPhee's example, DuBois has diagrammed the interactions between these five major sequences (above), drawing arrows to show how they talk to each other via subthemes. "Fashion" for example, crosses from boys to girls and "home" and "babies" also go from boys to girls.

The end at this point is full of religious connotations and gets subtly Catholic, which nobody picks up on their own unless he points it out, he says. There's a stigmata reference and other religious cues. "It might be too much," he adds "That's the chunk that AS was, like, 'OUT!'"

I ask him if the book aims to reflect more broadly on Irish society or on the neighborhood the kids are from. He replies that the kids are just understanding that the end of the Irish economic boom has left them with limited job and advancement possibilities, but while that's part of the background to the work, it's, "not the primary frame for the work...I don't think that's what the images are about, nor do I think they can sustain that critical framework for the entire book."

In a separate part of the conversation, DuBois adds more about this:
I'm not speaking for anyone other than myself. It's very much my voice. I never hold out for any sense of objectivity. I'm not an editorial photographer in this context, and I really don't even use a documentary frame, either. It has somewhat of a documentary look, and I certainly use devices that are associated with documentary photography... but I break what would be considered the rules [of documentary photography] all the time. And I have no problem with that...There's going to be no title, no labels, no introductory text that gives you historical and economic background about Ireland. I'm not going to present a specific discursive frame saying that these images should stand in for Ireland, or even Irish youth, or even this neighborhood. The title is My Last Day at Seventeen. Not 'Kids from Cobh' or 'Russell Heights,' which is the name of the housing estate.
There is, perhaps, something autographical about My Last Day at Seventeen in relation to being middle-aged, he continues. Youth is farther away now for himself than old age. "Looking back is a longer view than looking forward. That's an interesting perspective. And maybe I needed to be this age to have it. I don't know." At twenty years old, he says, this project would have been different - maybe even impossible. He would have been too close in age to the subjects.

DuBois recounted during our third conversation that while visiting a poet in her studio at MacDowell he saw her printed poems laid out in various configurations on her studio floor. He asked what she's looking at when she does this and she replied that she looks for word patterns, how imagery might be here in one poem, but might be better two poems later. He found it very akin to what he's doing with his images.

"This is going to make me sound like a formalist," he says, "but a part of the process when the book begins to happen is that the story has already been written in a sense, if we keep the literary analogy, and now it's about structure. And structure is very much about pattern and of course pattern generates meaning. So what I discover are patterns; what the visual motifs are, and even those that don't seem to mean anything can still have a wonderful sense of play and rhythm. Then there's some that you can read into or not. [In the book] there are all these crows. I'm watching the crows and I don't want too many crows. It's funny, I'll pull a picture, and say, 'No, no, no I can't have three crows in a row. Three is too much.' It can be slightly absurd like that."

He adds, "Houses are a rhythm I really followed throughout the book, as well as gestures...the visual motifs will sound abstract if I list them all out. In and of themselves, they don't mean really anything: crows don't mean anything, houses don't mean anything, the gestures in and of themselves don't mean anything, but as they work through images and all that they imply, they create structure and meaning that gives the viewer, I would hope, something for their imagination to cling to, even if its not really conscious. It's a mix of intuitive and a very careful, formal looking."

© Doug DuBois, Accordion books

At MacDowell he uses two walls: one with a big mass of images, and a second wall that he places raw sequences on. When he finds a sequence that he thinks is going to stick, those images leave the mass wall and they live on the sequence wall. The raw sequences allow him to see patterns. He prints out a miniature version of the sequence and places it on his long studio table (above). This allows him to judge the rhythm of the sequence and to establish which images will be full-bleed, which verticals, and which are going to be double-pages. If he folds and tapes the miniature sequence into an accordion book he can turn pages to understand the rhythm to see how the design elements come through.

The design elements at this point, however, are very simple. If he takes on the whole design thing seriously right now, he says, it will drive him crazy. "That's a whole other thing that will come later. But for now, big image, little image, whether it slides to the right or the left...that's an important rhythm that I'm definitely trying to figure out right now. It's a lot about patterns, which is kind of why I like it. I like this process. I feel the book is written and [I just have to get it] out there in the right way. In that sense, a certain kind of pressure is off. I'm not anxious about, 'Oh I need a picture of this.' When I'm shooting, man, it's a whole other craziness. 'Today sucked, I didn't get any photograph that worked' or 'I fucked up when we were trying to photograph this, what the hell happened?' That's like a writing anxiety. 'That paragraph's no good, it doesn't make any sense, I have to start again, I've got to toss that whole chapter.'"

© Doug DuBois, Two image bonfire sequence page 1 (click for full size)

© Doug DuBois, Two image bonfire sequence page 2 (click for full size)

In part one of this interview, we explored in some detail DuBois' interest in including filmic sequences as part of his editing framework. "I'm really interested in trying to do something explicitly filmic," he said in December, "Sequences are at the top of my head right now, and how to work sequences in a book."

The visit from the filmmaker Almada to his studio disabused him of the notion that he wanted to work with longer sequences of up to five images, such as in the bonfire sequence that he had considered opening the book with. "What can you say in five images that you can't say in one or two?" she asked him. DuBois says, "It's a very classic critique...The book was going to open with a five image sequence. She said no, distill it into two, and have it look almost like a highly compressed flipbook, just one [image] into the other, as you turn the page. I think it's a strong beginning...but everything is tentative and contingent on many, many things that I don't know about yet."

An exhibition of My Last Day at Seventeen presented in the neighborhood and town where he had been photographing in Ireland came down at the end of last year. While there's a correlation in images between the exhibition and the book, DuBois comments that they are different beasts. "On a very basic level, the book has a kind of permanence that the exhibition does not. So that makes the book in some ways more definitive. There's a certain weight to the placing and sequencing of images, where in an exhibition, less so. You know, there's all sorts of contingencies, the size of the space, the context of the space, the context of the exhibition, is it a gallery, is it a museum, is it a university, etc., etc., where it's located."

As a sidebar to our conversation, DuBois talked about image-making decisions he made while in the field in Ireland. He told his assistant, Ivan, which pictures they were NOT going to make before they'd go out, forming a set of self-imposed rules. DuBois recounts, "When we shot interiors, I said [to Ivan], 'No altars. I don't want pictures on a mantle. I'm not going to do that picture. Don't even point that picture out to me...or if you see me doing that picture, say 'That's an altar!' And the other one was no Madonnas. No women cradling a baby. And there are no pictures of women with a baby. There are men - there's Kevin - holding a baby, but none right now of women holding a baby. There is one Madonna-like image, though, and so I broke my rule, but it's one woman in another woman's lap, where she's plucking her eyebrow and it does have a Madonna-like thing."

In the last five years of his work for ...All the Days and Nights, the images made after 2000, DuBois didn't try to make any photographs in the moment. Similarly, the images that motivated most of the work in My Last Day at Seventeen are those explicitly negotiated with the subject, either through an improvised directing or a prearranged plan: "I want a picture of you doing this." He would barter a little bit with his subjects, taking an image for them, as well as one for himself.

In My Last Day at Seventeen he has also combined some frames digitally and used multiple cameras for the project, in addition to exploring the ideas of multiple-image sequences as we've discussed. All of these push ideas found, albeit more latent, in ...All the Days and Nights.