An Instinctive, Spiritual Artist

John Dugdale is an instinctive, spiritual artist. Considered one of the New York masters of photography, his images refer to the close and intimate connections we develop with people, objects, and spaces. Although he was introduced to the medium at a young age, life itself forced Dugdale to look at photography in another light, and ultimately shaped his artistic journey and career.

Complete Creative Freedom

John Dudgale was born in Connecticut in 1960. He received his first camera as a gift from his mother at the age of 11, which sparked his interest in the arts. He attended the prestigious School of Visual Arts in New York, majoring in art history and photography. Following school, he became a commercial freelance photographer. One of his first projects was when he took on a role to shoot photographs for a flower shop, Madderlake, which was a new opportunity for him to express his artistic vision, as he was given complete creative freedom. The assignment was when Dugdale first discovered his niche as a photographer, a style he would further develop throughout his career moving forward. Of the niche vision he says;

“I wanted to be very minimal, but not boring. I took one of those yellow bug lights and some pantyhose. I wrapped the pantyhose over the light, which caused it to smolder and smoke, and it ended up giving the photographs a very Renaissance feel.”

Dudgale’s commercial work took to new heights, and his images appeared in the pages of the New York Times, Cuisine and Connoisseur, as well as working with clients such as Bergdorf Goodman and Ralph Lauren.

John Dugdale, Empire Chair In The Gloaming
John Dugdale, Empire Chair in the Gloaming, 1994, Gelatin Chloride Photograph

Life Forever Changed

One morning, at the age of 33, John Dugdale had a stroke that would forever change his life. Due to HIV related complications, his right eye became completely blind, with a 20% of vision remaining on the left eye. Although tragic, such a trivial incident allowed Dugdale to end commercial photography and explore fine arts. His loss of sight, in a way, did not impact his ability to see.

“How can I be blind, when I can see so many images on my mind?”

Dudgale would say about his newly found abstract visual imagination that birthed timeless, sensual compositions. Shortly after, Judy Seigel, his neighbor, close friend, and an influential practitioner of 19th century photographic printing methods introduced Dugdale to cyanotypes. The ease and non-toxic nature of cyanotypes, combined with Dugdale’s interest in exploring the possibilities of a large format camera, and an appreciation for the thoughtful slowness that film allows, his artistic practice took on a heightened intellectuality.

John Dugdale, Triple Hyacinths, 1994, Cyanotype
John Dugdale, Triple Hyacinths, 1994, Cyanotype Photograph

Prussian Blue

Founded in 1842, the cyanotype printing method is one of the oldest printing methods in the history of photography. The distinctive element is the shade of cyan blue, the Prussian blue as it is famously called, which results from the exposure of iron salt solutions to ultraviolet light from the sun. The Prussian Blue is often thought to be as natural as the sky and the sea, and symbolizes peace and tranquility, the driving characteristics seen in Dugdale’s photographs.

“The quietude that people respond to in my pictures is,” he says, “in part, because of the way the pictures are made: no flash, no harsh electric light, not even the sound of the shutter – just a lens cap removed, and then gently replaced. This encounter provides, for me, a metaphor for looking.”

His rich, sensual and saturated cyanotypes that are often presented with hand made, antique frames, create the illusion that the images do in fact belong to the turn of the century. It is Dugdale’s way of paying homage to his greatest influences; Henry Fox Talbot, Julia Margaret Cameron, and Alfred Stieglitz.

John Dugdale, Mourning Tulips, 1999, Cyanotype Photograph
John Dugdale, Mourning Tulips, 1999, Cyanotype Photograph

Recreating Moments and Memories as Seen Within His Mind’s Eye

One of most striking series in John Dugdale’s photographic portfolio is without a doubt his ghostly, beautiful and timeless still lifes. His compositions offer intimate glimpses to private moments and spaces with a sense of history and immortality. The still lifes are about the essence of life, but are always autobiographical; Dugdale recreates moments and memories as seen within his mind’s eye. His still lifes are a documentation of his inner world, where the eye turns inward, allowing him to photograph the objects as he remembers them, with an enhanced level of detailing.

John Dugdale, Three Easter Lilies, 1998, Cyanotype Photograph
John Dugdale, Three Easter Lilies, 1998, Cyanotype Photograph

The arrangements, as can be seen in the works such as Three Easter Lilies and Cascade, seem to exist in a moment when time has stood still, where there is a kind of perfect stillness. The motionlessness of the compositions suggests and absence of life and silence, yet they are not of a grieving nature, but instead of a touching, melancholic one. Vince Aletti of the Village Voice once wrote;

“Dugdale continues to skim the beautiful surface of his deeper concerns – spirituality, death, interior decoration – so his ultra refined Neo Victorian sensibility and exquisite prints can be quite seductive.”

The gracefulness in his still lifes come from this spirituality, where Dugdale dives into the inner corners of his memory and imagination to arrange objects in stillness.

John Dugdale, Cascade, 1999, Cyanotype Photograph
John Dugdale, Cascade, 1999, Cyanotype Photograph

His Legacy

The admiration and appreciation John Dugdale has developed for the antiques manifests itself through his lifestyle as well. He currently lives and continues to work in Bethany Farm, an 18th century farmhouse in upstate New York. In 2010, Dugdale also founded the John Dugdale School of 19th Century Photography and Aesthetics. Dugdale has exhibited in over 25 solo shows in galleries across the world and his work has been included in group shows at such museums as the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, Miami Art Museum, and the Whitney Museum of Fine Arts, while his photographs are included in such collections as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston.

John Dugdale, Wonder Stings Me More Than a Bee, 1994, Gelatin Chloride Photograph
John Dugdale, Wonder Stings Me More Than a Bee, 1994, Gelatin Chloride Photograph