Snapshots from the rough edges

Tue, Oct 30, 2012, 00:00

Shot over the course of four years on the Russell Heights housing estate in Cobh, Co Cork, Doug DuBois’s remarkable photographic exhibition captures ‘all the fragile bravado of youth’

MICHIGAN-BORN Doug DuBois first came to Cobh on an artist’s residency at the Sirius Arts Centre in the summer of 2009, the same year his book All the Days and Nights was published. A remarkable work that cemented his reputation in fine art photography, the book draws on a series of photographs of his family that he’d been taking, in two lengthy stages, since 1984. It is, in fact, an ongoing project that continues to this day. Of course he did not know, when he began, that his father would come close to death after a fall and his mother would suffer a breakdown. The tangled aftermath of these life-changing episodes, and all the closeness and distance of family life, its tensions and strangeness, are vividly conveyed in images of startling vitality.

In Cobh, however, DuBois initially found himself stymied. He’d thought that he might work with a community group of some kind in the town, and found himself organising a workshop with a number of young people who were interested in photography.

Struck by the number of unfinished, abandoned building projects throughout the area, he had the idea of making portraits of contractors at the last site they’d worked on. The project was a non-runner in every way, he recounts. The contractors he contacted were traumatised and reluctant; the owners of the sites were antagonistic and suspicious; no one would touch it.

Then one evening, two participants in the the workshop, Kevin and Eirn, took him to where a group of local teenagers hang out. It was, he recalls, a bit unsettling, even a little intimidating, but he was lugging his camera gear and he decided to try to take a photograph. He set up a close-up portrait shot of one of them, getting just a single exposure before the atmosphere abruptly soured and Kevin said they should leave, immediately.

DuBois liked the one picture he’d managed so precariously to get, however. In the photograph, he said, he saw “all the fragile bravado of youth”. And from that shaky beginning grew My Last Day at Seventeen, a project that has drawn him back to Cobh every summer as the original residency extended into four years. He had a new subject: a small section of a generation of young people coming of age amid the wreckage of the economic collapse. The teenagers he’d encountered came from Russell Heights housing estate on Great Island and, little by little, he built up familiarity and trust with them.

The substantial body of work he’s built up is based on visiting and revisiting their lives. We see them in a series of brilliant close-up portraits, and as individuals, pairs and groups in the midst of the absolutely ordinary and everyday. Over the four-year period, people come and go, relationships form and dissolve, babies are born. Wider families are there, but largely in the background. There is no attempt to frame a chronological narrative, yet there is a cumulative narrative texture to the work that has to do with its interconnectedness and the density and richness of the images.

DuBois is carefully attentive to every subject. Each is allowed a space to inhabit, figuratively speaking, so that we get a rounded sense of the person and their inner as much as their outer world. Each is a fully formed character, never a convenient stereotype. We sense their apprehension as they face the realities of the world around them. There is something cinematic about the way we move rhythmically from close-up to long shot, and it comes as no surprise to learn that before graduating with an MFA in photography in San Francisco DuBois had also studied film for a time.

The striking quality of his images has partly to do with the fact that, more often than not, despite their informal immediacy, considerable preparation has gone into location, composition, lighting and even costume. He regards them as collaborative efforts involving himself, his assistant and all of the participants. Look at a portrait, for example, and it’s likely that someone outside the frame is holding aloft an artificial light and someone else a reflector screen below eye level. Occasionally elements from different frames are combined in a single image.

Some photography purists might disapprove, but DuBois’s approach is an acknowledgement of the fact that every photographic image, no matter how apparently unmediated, is a construct. His aim remains “to depict lived experience.” There are several quite complex group scenes in the series, and these are carefully staged and choreographed. One, a street scene with several figures and groups of figures, derived from a chance early study: struck by it when he got back to the US, he meticulously reassembled the cast of the original snapshot and made a more formal, large-format version when he returned the following year.

In this, he nods to classical painting as much as cinema, and it’s notable that the vignettes he sets up have a painterly gravitas, a heightened intensity that gives us pause. Just as a film projected on the big screen is not only larger but more luminous than life, so he was aiming to invest the workaday lives of the Russell Heights teenagers with a mythic quality, and perhaps to allow them to see themselves in a different, enhanced light.

One local rite of passage is to jump from a high bridge into the harbour. Scrapes are common, but the diver we see, slightly bloodied and proud, is indeed lent mythic, heroic status. As with his family photographs, DuBois has managed to address a subject matter that entails the risk of voyeurism while avoiding it completely. You can imagine the same theme being treated in an easy, sensationalist way. But rather than allowing us to remain on the outside, looking in, he brings us into the heart of these young lives, as might a gifted novelist or film-maker.

Earlier this year, he was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, based partly on his Cobh work, and his aim is that the work will form the substance of a book next year. Originally, Sirius’s Artistic Director Peggy Sue Amison met him at Fotofest Houston 2008 and suggested the possibility of his coming to Cobh. Neither had any notion that the project would take on the proportions that it has. The title, he notes, is not his. It came from a remark made by Eirn on the eve of her 18th birthday: “It just seemed perfect for what I was trying to do.”

My Last Day at Seventeen, Photographs by Doug DuBois. Sirius Arts Centre, Cobh. Until December 23rd

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