First I'd like to tell you how I knew John (and so many other golden girls and boys up and coming in the glittering 1990's). He was a friend, someone I met through the longest job I held working at a restaurant in New York called The Soho Charcuterie.
It was a haven for beautiful misfits, a whole bunch of people who needed a job, but were artists, musicians, photographers, poets, dancers. The owners were a couple of kooky and wonderful women who treated their business as a salon of sorts, a couple of Gertrudes and Alices collecting people, art, life experiences, while serving up food that wrote a historical foot note in the lore and history of Nouvelle Cuisine.
Well I could go on and on, but my memory bank is closing - please write me if I left you out or you remember someone else! The Charcuterie was like our finishing school of sorts...
At the time we all worked and loved and laughed together, we called upon one another to help out with our little projects. When one of us got a lead on a job, another one often took someone along with them. I called it the "good girl (and boy) network."
So many of those boys died from the great AIDS scourge of the 1980's and 1990's. I moved away from my beloved New York City in 1995. I was in bad shape myself, sick in body and soul and heart. My darling Alberto offered the safe haven and open arms that healed me. It took years.
As a result of that I lost the thread of my life, and track of many friends. It is only recently that I am back on track, trying to find people to reconnect with. I always dread finding out that someone else has died. And so it was when the question about John came up.
I Googled him. As far as I can tell he is still living. I have reprinted a portion of an interview I found HERE
It seems most of the things on Google are from the 1990's. John had left New York City and moved upstate to his country house in Pound Ridge, New York. The interview will tell you more and as much as I know...
DAVID FURNISH: Tell me how you first became interested in photography.
JOHN DUGDALE: I got a toy camera when I was about eleven, and right away I started taking pictures of my sister, who was eight, as the Venus de Milo. This was in my grandmother's garden. She was holding grapes over her head. It's funny, because I'm doing almost the same thing now, thirty years later.
DF: So you've always loved photography. How did it turn into your life's work?
JD: In my last year of high school, I had a wonderful photography teacher who used to leave the back door open to the school so I could go to the darkroom. I'd decided after graduation that I'd go to the Culinary Institute of America to be a chef, but this teacher said, "Why don't you go to art school instead?" I answered, "But I can't draw." And he said, "Don't be silly. What about photography!" That was it.
DF: How did you find your voice as a photographer?
JD: First I went back into the history of photography: tintypes, daguerreotypes, platinum prints, gelatin chloride, bromide, albumen. I reproduced Stieglitz and Steichen verbatim. That's how I taught myself to do lighting and make pictures. I learned more about photography by going back into its past than from anything my teachers said. By the way, while I was in college Interview reproduced four of my pictures. It was while Warhol was still alive, and so was the magazine's picture editor, the late Robert Hayes. It was the first time my work had been recognized, and I thought I would die of pride.
DF: To this day, your works still look in part as if they come from another time. And you still use older equipment, right?
JD: Yes. I use an 8 x 10 camera from 1912 - a beautiful cherry-wood thing that I rescued and had redone. And I have an exquisite, 1935 giant 11 x 14 camera on wheels, a big studio thing that weighs like 250 pounds. It's so big it's got a parking brake!
DF: How does your eyesight affect your work?
JD: A generous estimate would be that I have about 20 percent of my peripheral vision at the bottom of one eye. I can't see up; I can only see down. So if I look at something, I have to scan it with my little bit of eye. I can touch the corner of something and feel the shape, and then I stand back and see it. I have two assistants who make the paper and help me with the printing. I don't focus the camera. Other people focus it for me. Often people are afraid: They think they can't focus an 8 x 10 camera, and I tell them, "Can you tell if the television is clear or blurry?" They say, "Of course we can." So I say, "It's no different. Just roll this knob back and forth until it's clear, there's no magic, it's no secret." But I have the shutter release in my hand; it's very important for me to trip the shutter.
DF: When you flint got very sick, did you think you wouldn't be able to work anymore? Did you think your career was over?
JD: I had a period of freaking out before I got calm and realized that I came into the world by myself, and as much as I hate to admit it, I have to leave by myself. Then I started having seizures and my eyesight began to deteriorate. I found that the people around me were more anxiety-ridden than I was. They'd say things like, "Oh, John, you were doing so great and your career was going so beautifully." And without thinking, I said, "When I get out of here, I'm going to be the most famous blind photographer in the world."
DF: And what about your commercial career?
JD: My agent asked me, "John, what do you want me to tell people?" The next day I called him and said, "Tell people I had a stroke and I nearly lost my sight to HIV." My commercial clients fled. The one client who did continue to use me was, believe it or not, Martha Stewart. Her office sent me flowers all the time in the hospital. They were very present for me, and they still are.
DF: What do you think you learned as an artist from all this?
JD: Most people when they think of losing their sight are so blown out of the water they can't even think. They think it's the end of their life. But if you ask any person who's comfortable being blind, or nearly blind, you'll hear that something else takes over - your heart and your intuition. And it makes up for what you're not using your eyes for. It sounds kind of cliche, but it's absolutely true.
DF: Since then, you've gone through lots more with your illness, but also with your work. Can you tell me more about the evolution of your photography in general?
JD: Ultimately, I realized that the clarity of my vision was intact and had nothing to do with what was filtered through my eyes and my problems there. And when people came over to do the nudes, they'd take their clothes off, and then I'd take my clothes off. I did that because I was doing a self-portrait with each person, and also because for some crazy reason I found that one of the things that seemed ridiculous to me after spending so much time in the hospital was my clothing. You'll note that in my photographs almost everybody is nude, because to me that way it seems like you're closer to God, or closer to the cosmos, or the ground.HERE of John working in his studio. I also found a web site for John HERE. There is an address for him at his old NYC apartment on Morton Street and a phone number. I think I'll be phoning him to say hello.
by John Dugdale