Duchess Milan stands at the balcony, white hair coiffed and feathered, gold walls lustrous as any throne. Louis sits in church, hands relaxed, leaning forward in a sun-dappled pew. Bobbi, an Air Force veteran, gently holds a model plane, wings wrapped in camoflauge.
The lives of older transgender people are rarely depicted in American culture, but in “To Survive on This Shore” (2018), photographer Jess T. Dugan offers dozens of moving, richly nuanced portraits. Created in collaboration with Vanessa Fabbre, assistant professor at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis, the project captures complex intersections of gender identity, age, race, ethnicity, sexuality and socioeconomic class across the United States, in cities big and small.
“Identity and social connection are driving forces in my life and work,” Dugan said, “and I have long been drawn to making photographic portraits in pursuit of a deeper understanding of these human experiences.” Their work, Dugan adds, “invites viewers to engage with others in an intimate, meaningful way, requiring them to reflect on their own identities in the process.”
This academic year, Dugan will serve as the 2020-21 Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Teaching Fellow at Washington University. The fellowship, which is jointly sponsored by the Saint Louis Art Museum and the university’s Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts, is designed to promote the creation and exhibition of contemporary art as well as the teaching of contemporary art principles.
“Jess’ work expands viewer awareness of critical gender, sexuality and identity issues,” said Patricia Olynyk, the Florence and Frank Bush Professor of Art and director of the Creative Research Institute, who co-chaired the Freund search committee. “It diversifies and complicates our assumptions about gender identity, transcending the field of documentary photography, while revealing narratives that challenge heteronormative culture through their arresting portraits. At the same time, Jess has built an impressive, nationally visible practice as a St. Louis-based artist. We are excited to welcome them to our program.”
The Freund Teaching Fellowship is supported by the Henry L. and Natalie E. Freund Endowment Fund. Dugan will participate in a variety of talks, seminars and studio critiques with students in the Graduate School of Art and also will lead a series of professional practice workshops. In addition, Dugan will continue making new work as part of “Every Breath We Drew” — an ongoing series of portraits and self-portraits that explore the formation of identity, the expression of desire and the search for intimate connections — while preparing for a solo exhibition as part of the museum’s Currents series.
“We at the museum are incredibly excited for Jess Dugan’s upcoming Currents exhibition,” said Hannah Klemm, associate curator of modern and contemporary art at the Saint Louis Art Museum. “Their work deftly and poignantly examines themes such as identity formation, intimacy and self-examination that while timeless, feel particularly relevant today.”
Jess T. Dugan
Born in Biloxi, Miss., Dugan earned a bachelor’s degree in photography from the Massachusetts College of Art and Design in 2007; a master’s degree in museum studies from Harvard University in 2010; and a master’s in photography from Columbia College Chicago in 2014.
Dugan’s work has been widely exhibited and is in the permanent collections of: the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery; the International Center of Photography; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; and the Museum of Contemporary Photography, among many others. Dugan’s monographs include “To Survive on This Shore” and “Every Breath We Drew” (2015).
Dugan is recipient of a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant and an International Center of Photography Infinity Award and was selected by the Obama White House as an LGBT Artist Champion of Change. In 2015, they founded the Strange Fire Artist Collective to highlight work made by women, people of color and LGBTQ artists. They are represented by the Catherine Edelman Gallery in Chicago.