is the president and co-founder, with director Mike Nichols, of Friends
in Deed, an organization devoted to helping people confront life-threatening
illness and grief. (An auction for Friends in Deeds tenth anniversary,
co-hosted by Nichols and Graydon Carter, the editor of Vanity Fair,
will take place at Christies, in New York, on September 10):
The connection between photography and AIDS is embodied in the person
of John Dugdale.
One night about four years ago, John walked into a group meeting of
Friends in Deed. It was the first he ever attended. About two-thirds
of the way through the meeting, he raised his hand and proceeded to
tell us what hed been through. In a manner completely without
self-pity, he described his strokes and seizures, how he had lost his
hearing in one ear, how he had lost almost all of his sight. In his
left eye there is a tiny, tiny bit around the lower periphery, so he
usually has some idea of what peoples chins look like. The view
out of his right eye is black velvet. That night, he explained that
what he is, first and foremost, is a photographer. And he insisted that
despite his condition, and without changing anything else in his life,
he felt committed to continuing his work.
is exactly what hes done. Hes done an exhibition every year.
They are extraordinary. The themes of Johns work encompass a sense
of loss, a sense of stillness, a deep appreciation of beauty, both man-made
and natural. A door ajar. An empty chair in front of a window, as though
someone were sitting in it, looking out, except no one is there.
John does a lot of self-portraiture. His own body, nude, lying on the
floor, with his arms and legs up, all twisted, is meant to represent
his own seizure. There is a photograph depicting an experience with
his friend Anne. Anne was going to take him to have eye surgery. He
was swooning, as if he couldnt go through with it. He was sitting
in a chair and he felt as though his spirit was leaving his body. Anne
came, stood behind him and held onto him, and he said, Its
all right. Well make a picture of this when this is done.
He did indeed. He made it through the surgery and then created a picture
of himself sitting in the chair, no clothes on, with Anne reaching over
and holding onto him. So hes taken elements of the AIDS experience
and made photographic images that are just astounding. The work allows
you to see him transcending his illness.
By and large, his prints are blue, cyanamide, made with a process that
requires no chemicals. His apartment is on the top floor of a beautiful
brownstone. Beyond his dormer windows is a roof where he can lay his
images out and let them develop in the sun. You come in and you wash
them off in the kitchen sink. His dedication includes the process he
uses to print the pictures, his apartment, his house in the country.
Imagine what he goes through. Hes almost sightless and he has
to negotiate his way around a huge 8 x 10 or 11 x 14 camera, collaborate
with his subject, walk back and forth between his subject and the black
cloth, trade places with his subject while his subject focuses, then
trades places again to click the shutter. Johns work is inspiring.
But beyond the work, his will to pursue a life as a photographer has
been such an inspiration to people with AIDS, people whose lives have
changed for some physical reason and have felt defeated by that. And
then theres Dugdale.
He has donated his prints to Friends in Deed with such generosity you
cannot imagine. His work now goes for thousands. Maurice Sendak has
a Dugdale collection. Elton John, I think, has a room in his house in
the south of France that has only John Dugdales. Hes done four
incredible books: Lengthening Shadows Before Nightfall, New Suns
Will Arise, The Clandestine Mind and Lifes Evening Hour.
John is the essence of the kind of courage that we see in a lot of people
with AIDS: An absolute determination to live with the virus in as full
and complete a way as is humanly possible.
the Friends in Deed website: